Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and Episcopalian priest. They were an individual who resided at the margins and intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and class—best characterized by one of her self-created monikers “The Imp!”1 Her ambivalent and transcendental identities have marked her as deviant from dominant (ie. patriarchal, homophobic, transphobic, and more presently secularized) discourses dealing with the Civil Rights Movement.
Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 10, 1910, being the fourth of six children. Unfortunately, Pauli’s childhood was struck by the tragic deaths of her parents. Agnes Fitzgerald died in 1914 from cerebral hemorrhage and William Murray was murdered by a white guard at Crownsville State Hospital in 1923 where he had been confined due to long-term complications with typhoid fever and depression. In the aftermath, Murray went to live in Durham, North Carolina with her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, and grandparents, Robert George and Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald.
After excelling at Hillside High School, Murray attended Hunter College in New York City and worked multiple jobs to self-finance their education. This was a transformative time for Pauli in exploring a more expansive understanding of gender. They changed their name from “Anna Pauline” to “Pauli” and attempted to pursue gender-affirming medical treatments, namely hormone therapy, which was denied to them. During her studies, Murray also wrote and published a large body of articles and poems and worked at the Works Projects Administration (WPA), a New Deal public works project agency, and as a teacher at the New York City Remedial Reading Project. In 1933, Murray graduated with a degree in English Literature and began to become more involved in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Their educational pursuits were not finished yet either. Pauli began campaigning to pursue graduate studies at University of North Carolina (UNC), an all-white school, in 1938. This effort received national media recognition despite the NAACP’s lack of support and resulted in a lasting friendship with the then first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1940 during Easter weekend, Murray (a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) was traveling with Adelene McBean, her housemate and girlfriend,2 in Virginia on a Greyhound bus—after having recently studied Gandhi’s non-violent framework, satyagraha. The duo was arrested and imprisoned after disobeying Jim Crow law by sitting in the front section of the bus and were later charged for disorderly conduct and making a disturbance, as opposed to breaking segregation law, in order to avoid public attention.3 Prior to this occurrence, she had been discussing Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience in activist circles and had even created notes drawing comparisons between the situation in India and the plight of African Americans in segregation.4 Murray also notes in her autobiography that upon leaving the bus in her arrest she said to the bus driver, “‘You haven’t learned a thing in two thousand years.’ I could not forget that it was Easter Even,” connecting the oppression of Jim Crow segregation to the suffering and persecution of Jesus.5 While the pair’s charges were ultimately designated as creating a disturbance rather than breaking segregation laws, it appears difficult to ignore the aspect of their gender and sexuality, played in this result, in which their outspokenness about the injustices they were facing while on the bus and their closeness to one another would have further marked them as deviant. This incident occurred approximately fifteen years before Rosa Parks made her mark in the movement, but is barely mentioned in the popular cis-heteropatriarchal canon surrounding the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1941 to 1944, Murray attended Howard University law school to become a civil rights lawyer. During this time, George Houser, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Murray came together to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which focused on using nonviolent techniques to enact change. Through their experiences at Howard, Pauli coined the term “Jane Crow” to capture the specific oppression Black women face. After graduating valedictorian, they received a fellowship to attend Harvard Law School, but was unjustly rejected from the school due to prevailing patriarchy. However, Murray traveled to California to attend University of California Boalt School of Law, received their LLM (Master of Laws) degree, and wrote a thesis titled The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment.
Then, returning to New York City, Murray passed the bar exam in 1945, dealt with a streak of unemployment, and was then commissioned by the Women’s Division of the Christian Service Board of Missions of the Methodist Church to write the book States’ Laws on Race and Color, which detailed every state’s statues that dealt with racial segregation that was published in 1951.6 Thurgood Marshall considered this work “the bible” of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a vital tool in the success of the Brown v. Board of Education case. An important feature of this document was that they not only detailed segregation laws that affected African Americans, but also covered “restrictive legislation against Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and other Orientals.”7 Murray’s work provides a thorough exploration of state laws and regulations relating to racial segregation across a variety of manifestations, including housing, employment, education, military service, hospitals, jails, protections against violence, and other factors.
In the 1950s, Murray, like many others involved in the Civil Rights Movement, fell victim to backlash from McCarthyism and lost a US State Department post at Cornell University. During this period of unemployment, she wrote and published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, which is a biographical account of her grandparents and their experiences pertaining to race. After the book was published in 1956, Murray was offered a job in the litigation department at a new law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison where she would meet her long-time partner, Irene Barlow, who was an office manager.
From 1960 to 1961, Murray traveled to Ghana to teach at the Ghana School of Law and explore their own cultural background. In their year abroad, Murray co-authored the book, The Constitution and Government of Ghana, along with Leslie Rubin. Once back in the United States, Murray enrolled at Yale Law School where she received her Doctor of Science of Law (JSD) degree. Also in 1961, Murray was appointed by then President John F. Kennedy to serve on the Committee on Civil and Political Rights within his larger Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. At this time, she began working more closely with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King and was deeply troubled by the blatant patriarchy and sexism in the Civil Rights Movement and organizations.
During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, no women were permitted to make speeches and one of the March’s key organizers, A. Philip Randolph, spoke at the National Press Club, which was a men’s only organization.8 Although Murray viewed the March itself in optimistic prophetic terms of judgment and redemption, drawing comparison to the masses that would come to Jesus to hear his teachings, such glaring hypocrisies spoke volumes of the sexism of the patriarchal civil rights leadership.9 In response to such events, at the National Council of Negro Women leadership conference in November of 1963, Murray gave a speech called, “The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality,” to address the exclusion Black women had felt throughout the movement, as well as their particular burden in their dual race and sex oppression. In her speech, Murray draws upon legacies of Black women activists and freedom fighters such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, and others to bear the question, “would the Negro struggle have come this far without the indomitable determination of its woman?”10 She furthermore directly addresses the perpetuation and replication of the abuses of white supremacy through patriarchy in addressing Randolph’s grievances, “Mr. Randolph apparently saw no relationship between being sent to the balcony and being sent to the back of the bus. [...] He failed to see that he was supporting the violation of the very principle for which he was fighting: that human rights are indivisible.”11
Two years later in 1965, Murray and Mary Eastwood, a feminist legal scholar, co-wrote an article called “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” in 1965 that outlined reasoning to keep “sex” as a protected category of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the unique oppression that Black women face as a result of their intersection of race and gender.12 Much of Murray’s work with the concept of Jane Crow can be seen within a lineage of womanist thought, as well as a precursor to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality that has become prominent and a staple in contemporary critical race and feminist disciplines. Then in 1966, she co-founded, along with Betty Friedan and other feminists, the National Organization for Women (NOW). In somewhat of a reversal, Murray ultimately stepped down from leadership because she felt the organization was not adequately addressing the needs and concerns of Black and working class women. From 1967 to 1968, she had a brief stint as the vice president of Benedict College, before moving on to serve as a tenured law professor at Brandeis University. Murray also introduced the first African-American studies and women’s studies courses at the University.
In 1973, she cut her tenureship short after the death of her partner Irene Barlow from a brain tumor and decided to become a candidate for ordination at General Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York. Four years later, Murray was the first African-American woman in the US ordained as an Episcopal priest amongst other newly ordained white women priests. After her ordination, she preached in churches throughout North Carolina—including St. Philip's Episcopal Church where her mother and grandparents had attended in the 1800s—before settling at a parish in Washington D.C. Murray would remain at this parish seven years until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1985.
The core of Murray’s theology lies at an intersection of Black and feminist theology that views racism and sexism as intersecting forms of oppression, which she proposed as a “theology of relationship.”13 This can be seen as the early roots of womanist theology. The notion of “social transformation as a basic requirement of the gospel” is also an important basis for her critique of churches and other institutional structures that claim to be Christian when they uphold systems of oppression.14 Murray was particularly drawn to the notion of reconciliation—relating to work concerning liberation by the Black theologian, J. Deotis Roberts—as a unifying idea, which shares some connections to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 's idea of a beloved community.15 MLK’s ideas of reconciliation and salvation were vital to Murray in understanding how all peoples can be liberated, as opposed to the perceived alienation and disharmony of Black militancy or separatism.16 In pursuit of such reconciliation and justice, Murray believed that “suffering is redemptive to the degree that it is the consequence of activity properly directed toward the liberation God desired for humanity,” which involves “painful advocacy of human equality and the demonstration of love and respect.”17 This also draws a basis in her belief that within God “there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”18 This notion of redemptive suffering and reconciling community aligned with her belief in non-violence and integration. Her religious universalism doesn’t serve to flatten differences between people in service of a more facetious “unity,” but rather acknowledges difference in a manner that does not deem anyone disposable and involves everyone in productive critique and change.
In accordance with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and considering Pauli’s complex relationship to gender, this profile uses she, he and they pronouns interchangeably when discussing Pauli’s early life and she/her/hers when discussing Pauli’s later years.
Photo from Carolina Digital Library and Archives. "Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985." 5 July 2007. Online image. UNC University Library. Accessed 8 April 2011. Used by permission of Creative Commons license.
(This biographical statement was researched and written by Gabrielle Garcia.)
1. Anthony B. Pinn, “Pauli Murray’s Triadic Strategy of Engagement,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29.1 (2013): 161.
2. Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 79.
3. Sarah Azaransky, “We Can Add to World Justice,” in This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 84.
4. Pauli Murray, "Notes taken by Pauli Murray on non-violence, March 1940.". Papers of Pauli Murray, 1827-1985, MC 412; T-194; T-245, 85-88.. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
5. Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row 1987), 142.
6. Sarah Azaransky, The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 37-38.
7. Pauli Murray, State’s Laws on Race and Color, and Appendices: Containing International Documents, Federal Laws and Regulations, Local Ordinances and Charts (Cincinnati: Women’s Division of Christian Service, Board of Missions and Church Extension, Methodist Church, 1951), 5.
8. Azaransky, The Dream is Freedom, 62.
9. Ibid, 62-63.
10. Pauli Murray, "The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality," speech, 14 November 1963 in Washington D.C., from Women and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-1965, Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, editors (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 231-232.
11. Murray, “The Negro Woman in the Quest for Equality,”, 233.
12. Azaransky, The Dream is Freedom, 64-65.
13. Anthony B. Pinn, “Religion and ‘America’s Problem Child’: Notes on Pauli Murray’s Theological Development,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15.1 (1999): 28, 30.
14. Pinn, “Religion and ‘America’s Problem Child,’” 28.
15. Ibid, 29.
16. Pauli Murray, “Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976.” Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, paragraph 2 and 4 of transcript.
17. Pinn, “Religion and ‘America’s Problem Child,’” 32-33.
18. Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, 435.
Biography Date: August 2021