For Black History Month – Pauli Murray

Anyone remember Pauli Murray?


Pauli Murray.

Would it surprise you to learn that Pauli Murray refused to move to the back of the bus – in 1940! Fifteen years before Rosa Parks? That she was arrested in Virginia and initially defended by the NAACP? Yes she was.

There was only one problem – Pauli Murray was a lesbian woman of mixed race.

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore. She described herself as “the United Nations of mixes” – a heritage of free blacks, black slaves, white slave owners and native Americans. Her parents identified as black.

After the death of her mother when Pauli was 14 she was sent to live in Durham North Carolina with her maternal grand-parents. Upon turning 18 she moved in with a cousin in New York who was passing for white, creating a neighborhood stir because Pauli was more visibly bi-racial.

There was anothe “problem” – Pauli would today probably considered a trans-sexual. At the time there were no words for what she felt. “Though acknowledging the term “homosexual” in describing others, Murray preferred to describe herself as having an “inverted sex instinct” that caused her to behave as a man attracted to women.”

Murray wore her hair short and preferred pants to skirts; due to her slight build, there was a time in her life when she was often able to pass as a teenage boy.  In her twenties, she shortened her name from Pauline to the more androgynous Pauli.

Pauli aspired to attend Columbia University but was turned away because it did not admit women. Barnard turned her away for lack of funds. She finally attended Hunter College, the free university of New York. She was one of the few black students. While in Hunter she published her first book – “Proud Shoes” – and graduated in 1933 with a B.A. in English.

Pauli applied to the University of North Carolina law school but was rejected because she was black.
The case was broadly publicized in both white and black newspapers. Murray also wrote to officials ranging from the university president to President Roosevelt, releasing their responses to the media in an attempt to embarrass them into action. The NAACP was initially interested in the case, but later declined to represent her in court, apparently fearing that her long residence in New York state weakened her case.   NAACP leader Roy Wilkins also opposed the case due to Murray’s release of her correspondence, which he considered “not diplomatic”. Concerns about her sexuality may also have played a role in the decision; Murray often wore pants rather than skirts and was open about her relationships with women.

In early 1940 Pauli and a girl friend Arlene McBean took a bus to Durham to visit her aunts. In Petersburg, Virginia, the two women moved out of the broken seats in the black section of the bus, where segregation laws mandated that they sit, and into the rear of the white section. Inspired by a conversation they had been having about Gandhian civil disobedience, the two women refused to return to the rear even after the police were called, and they were arrested and jailed. Murray and McBean were initially defended by the NAACP, but when the pair were convicted only of disorderly conduct rather than violating segregation laws, the organization ceased to represent them. Her fine was paid by the Workers’ Defense League (WDL), a socialist labor rights organization, which a few months later hired Murray for its Administrative Committee.

It seems fairly clear that few wanted a great deal of publicity defending what for the time was considered shocking – two out lesbians. Pauli called it “Jane Crow” – the institutional oppression of women of any color.

Now working at the Worker’s Defense League, Pauli became active in the murder trial of Odell Waller, a black Virginia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord, Oscar Davis, during an argument. The WDL argued that Davis had cheated Waller and that Waller had fired in legitimate fear of his life. Murray toured the country raising funds for Waller’s appeal.

Pauli contacted Eleanor Roosevelt and through their correspondence began a lfie-long friendship that lasted until Eleanor’s death.

Her trial over the bus ride in Virginia and her involvement in the Waller case got Pauli into Howard University Law School, the only woman in her class. On her first day of class, one professor, William Robert Ming, remarked that he did not know why women went to law school, infuriating Murray.

In 1942, while still in law school, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and published an article challenging segregation in the US military, “Negro Youth’s Dilemma”. She also participated in sit-ins challenging several Washington D.C. restaurants with discriminatory seating policies, a forerunner to the more famous civil rights movement sit-ins of the 1950s and ’60s.

Murray was elected Chief Justice of the Howard Court of Peers, the highest student position at Howard, and in 1944 she graduated first in her class. However, although men who graduated first in the class had been given the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate work at Harvard University, Murray was rejected from Harvard because of her gender, despite a letter of support from President Roosevelt.

She instead attended the Boalt Hall School of Law at University of California, Berkeley. Her master’s thesis was The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment, which argued that “the right to work is an inalienable right”. It appeared in the California Law Review.

She decame the first black Deputy Attorney General of California and was named Woman of the Year by the National Council of Negro Women.

“In 1950, Murray published States’ Laws on Race and Color, an examination and critique of segregation laws. In it, Murray drew on psychological and sociological evidence as well as legal, an innovative technique that she had previously been criticized for by her Howard professors. This approach was influential in the NAACP’s arguments in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that held segregated schools to be unconstitutional. She also argued in the book that civil rights lawyers should stop attempting to gradually reduce segregation by proving the inequality of so-called “separate but equal” facilities, but should forthrightly argue that segregation itself was unconstitutional. NAACP Chief Counsel and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s book the “bible” of the movement.”

President Kennedy appointed Murray to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women” in 1961

In 1963 she became one of the first to criticize the sexism of the civil rights movement, in her speech “The Negro Woman and the Quest for Equality”. In a letter to civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, among other grievances, she criticized the fact in the 1963 March on Washington no women were invited to make one of the major speeches or to be part of its delegation of leaders who went to the White House.

In 1965 Murray published her landmark article (coauthored by Mary Eastwood), “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII”, in the George Washington Law Review. The article discussed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as it applied to women, and drew comparisons between discriminatory laws against women and Jim Crow laws. In 1966 she was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women, which she hoped could act as an NAACP for women’s rights.

When lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her brief for Reed v. Reed—a 1971 Supreme Court case that for the first time extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women—she added Murray as coauthor in recognition of her work.

Murray eventually became a professor of law at Brandeis where she remained until 1973 when at more than 60 years old she went to a seminary.

After three years of study, she became the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977. For the next seven years, Murray worked in a parish in Washington, D.C., focusing particularly on ministry to the sick. She died of cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1985

A vote at the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church named her to Holy Women, Holy Men, a book of the church that Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina said lists “people whose lives have exemplified what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and make a difference in the world.”

Pauli Murray is an Episcopal saint.


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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8 Responses to For Black History Month – Pauli Murray

  1. sojourner says:

    Thank you so much for this. What an amazing story and woman.


  2. Lots of black people refused to move to the back of the bus in the fifties and sixties. Tim Weiss talks about this in his documentary White Like Me. If they weren’t lesbian like Murray, they were unemployed or had a history of a criminal conviction (which was extremely easy in the Jim Cross South – blacks could be arrested for vagrancy if they weren’t carrying a written letter from their employer as proof of employment). Civil rights leaders were waiting from someone of impeccable virtue like Rosa Parks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Civil rights leaders were waiting from someone of impeccable virtue like Rosa Parks.”

    Why am I not surprised?


  4. Thank you so much for sharing information of this amazing lady. I’m so glad to discover your site and learn something new.
    Best wishes from Tokyo,


  5. hey there, I have enjoyed perusing your work. You sure did your homework, I am impressed. In fact your writing is so good I am now following you. BTW, thanks for coming by my place and the follow too. I will come back, often.


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