BLACK HISTORY MONTH: NOW Salutes Our Co-Founder Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985)
A feminist icon ahead of her time who challenged race and gender discrimination in legal, societal, academic and religious circles.
Pauli’s Legacy Lives On – Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910-1985), great grand-daughter of enslaved persons, was a talented poet, thoughtful autobiographer and historian, perceptive social commentator, dedicated political organizer, compassionate attorney, inspiring professor, brilliant legal theorist and a ground-breaking Episcopal priest. Pauli Murray was one of the country’s foremost thinkers, legal theorists, civil rights/women’s rights organizers and writers. Her legacy continues to endow popular movements against discrimination and oppression not only in the U.S., but around the world.
Murray Led with Many ‘Firsts’ – Here are a just a few of Pauli’s “firsts.” She was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Petersburg, Va. 15 years before Rosa Parks. She organized restaurant sit-ins in Washington, D.C. 20 years before the Greensboro sit-ins. She was one of the most important thinkers and legal scholars of the 20th century, serving as a bridge between the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Her civil rights activism led her to help form with 48 other women and men in 1966 the National Organization for Women because she believed that women needed their own National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP)-type organization.
Ending “Separate but Equal’ – Among her many impressive accomplishments, Murray advanced a legal argument that led to the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) which found that ‘separate but equal’ was unconstitutional. The late Supreme Court Justice, then NAACP Chief Counsel, Thurgood Marshall, and the NAACP called her 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” The ‘Bible’ was especially useful in Brown as an examination of and critique of state segregation laws throughout the country.
Prohibiting Sex Discrimination – As a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alongside lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, Murray co-wrote the brief on White v. Crook, (1966) which struck down the all-white, all-male jury system in Alabama as unconstitutional. This case is regarded as a turning point in civil rights law. Murray’s legal scholarship laid the groundwork for Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s argument in Reed v. Reed, (finding that preference for males as estate administrators was unconstitutional, 1971) marked the first time that the Equal Protection Clause would be applied to a case of sex discrimination, prohibiting differential treatment based on sex. Her efforts to retain “sex” in Title VII have provided long-standing legal protection for women against employment discrimination.
Friend of Eleanor Roosevelt; Consultant to Presidents – She was a friend and faithful correspondent of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who did much to encourage the work of Pauli as Pauli heightened the First Lady’s awareness of the challenges faced by working women, the poor and communities of color. Pauli Murray’s status was such by this time she became a consultant to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Women’s History Civil Rights 2018 Award – Her legacy to both the civil rights and women’s rights movements is slowly being recognized. The National Women’s History Project (http://www.nwhp.org/) is awarding Murray their 2018 Civil Rights Award for her work to end discrimination against African-Americans and women. Murray will share the award posthumously with Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011), the 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate and the first woman VP candidate and with Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911-1958), an activist for Alaska Natives who spearheaded the first anti-discrimination law in the U.S. The women will be honored at two luncheon events, one in Washington, D.C. on March 24 and the second at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. on August 18. Twelve other accomplished women will be honored at these events themed, “Nevertheless She Persisted – Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
Murray’s Memoir and Book of Poetry Re-issued – 2018 is clearly the year of Pauli Murray recognition: W.W. Norton & Co. will be releasing in May the acclaimed Song in A Weary Throat: A Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, which Pauli finished near the end of her life in 1985. It is the very moving story of a life-long struggle with health issues and with the lack of acceptance of her queer identity, plus encounters with pervasive race and sex discrimination, but at the same time reaching unparalleled heights in civil rights and women’s rights history. Norton will also publish her Testament and Other Poems in September.
A New Film about Pauli Murray’s Life – The film, A Song of Hope: The Life Story of Pauli Murray, is currently in production. The trailer can be viewed at, https://paulimurrayproject.org/pauli-murray-film-trailer-from-timetravel-productions/ and a touring company will be presenting a play, To Buy the Sun – The Challenge of Pauli Murray, in various cities including Washington, D.C.
A Feminist Saint! – An interactive exhibit, sponsored by the Pauli Murray Project at Duke University, is on display at Trinity Episcopal Church through March 21 in New York City. She was the first African-American woman to become an ordained Episcopal priest after earning a Master of Divinity degree. In 2012, Pauli was designated a Saint by the Episcopal Church she had served as a priest in the last decade of her life.
Pauli Murray College – In addition, Yale University has named a residential college for the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, who was the first African-American to be awarded a doctorate in law from Yale Law School. Pauli Murray College opened in 2017.
More on Her Remarkable Life – In 2016, NOW wrote an article about Pauli’s amazing life, noting a recent, award-winning book about her remarkable relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the designation of her childhood home as a National Historic Landmark, entitled “Finding Pauli Murray: The Black Queer Feminist Civil Rights Lawyer Priest who co-founded NOW, but that History Nearly Forgot.”