Pauli Murray dismantled systems of oppression

This is the sixteenth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

History is filled with people who are notable for one reason or another. Pauli Murray is notable for dozens. Throughout her life, she was told she couldn’t do things, often because she was Black or a woman (or both). In pretty much every instance, she pushed back, challenging the cultural norms of her time and notions of what was acceptable.

Race was a complicated subject for Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, who was born in 1910. On both sides of her family, her lineage included Black slaves, white slave owners, Native Americans, Irish, and free Black peoples. Her parents identified as Black, as did she, but at least one branch of the family—her cousin Maude’s—passed for white and was living in a white neighborhood in New York.

Born in 1910, Pauli Murray lost both of her parents pretty young. Her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage when she was three. Her father was beaten to death by a white guard at the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland—where he’d been committed after having emotional problems as a result of typhoid fever—when she was 13.

She was raised by her mother’s family in Durham, North Carolina, but moved to New York to finish high school and prepare for college. There, she lived with her cousin Maude’s family. This complicated things a bit with Maude’s white neighbors, who weren’t enthusiastic about someone of at least partial African descent living in their neighborhood.

Murray graduated with honors in 1927 applied to Columbia University. She was rejected because they didn’t admit women, a position they held until the first women received diplomas from Columbia’s undergraduate program in 1987. Unable to afford to attend Barnard College, Columbia’s women-only affiliate, Murray attended Hunter College—a free city university where she was one of only a handful of students of color—and graduated with an English degree.

After spending some time working in a She-She-She camp, where she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she applied to the University of North Carolina and was rejected because of her race. Not willing to accept the rejection—and the segregation of schools—Murray wrote to everyone from the university president to President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself and released the responses to newspapers in hopes it would force them to reconsider the decision. It looked like the NAACP was going to take on the case, but they backed down at the last minute. Ostensibly, they dropped the case because she’d released their responses to her letters, but some suspect her sexuality played a role as well: Murray was open about having relationships with other women and she liked to wear pants instead of skirts.

In 1940, Murray and her roommate/girlfriend Adelene McBean were traveling from New York to Durham to visit here aunts. They were traveling by bus and, in Virginia, they moved from a set of broken seats in the back of the bus to a non-broken seat further up. In Virginia, however, state law required Black people sit in the back of the bus and the women were asked to return to the back of the bus. In an act of civil disobedience, they refused. The police were called and the women were arrested and jailed. The two were eventually convicted of disorderly conduct—rather than violating segregation laws—and the Workers’ Defense League (WDL) stepped up to pay their fines.

Shortly after they paid her fine, Murray was hired by the WDL. While there, she became involved in advocacy work for Odell Waller, a Black sharecropper who was sentenced to death for killing his white landlord. Murray worked to assemble funds for his appeal and even wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to ask for any assistance she might be able to give Waller. Roosevelt wrote to the Virginia governor on Waller’s behalf and even had her husband, the president, privately request commutation of Waller’s sentence. Sadly, those requests fell on deaf ears and Waller was executed in 1942.

Between her advocacy for Waller and the whole bus incident, Murray was inspired to start a career in civil rights law. She went to Howard University, where she was the only woman in her law school class. To add insult to injury, on her first day of class, one of her professors remarked that he didn’t know why women went to law school to begin with. Infuriated with comments like that, and other forms of sexism at the school, she coined the term “Jane Crow” to highlight the unfair oppression.

In 1944, Murray graduated first in her class from Howard. Men attaining that same level of accomplishment were awarded Julius Rosenwald Fellowships for graduate work at Harvard University. At the time, however, Harvard did not accept women—even those with a letter of recommendation from President Roosevelt! Her response to their rejection was perfect:

I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?

I can’t think of a better way to highlight such a ridiculous policy like not admitting women.

Following her rejection from Harvard, Murray went to the University of California, Berkeley to do post-graduate work. In 1946, after completing her thesis, entitled “The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment,” and passing the bar exam, Murray became the first Black deputy attorney general in the state of California. That year, the National Council of Negro Women named Murray “Woman of the Year” and Mademoiselle followed suit in 1947.

In 1950, Murray published States’ Laws on Race and Color, a critique of state segregation laws throughout the U.S. Thurgood Marshall, who later became a supreme court justice, called her book the “bible” of the civil rights movement. In it, Murray argued that civil rights lawyers should directly challenge state segregation laws as unconstitutional, instead of trying to prove that “separate but equal” facilities were not equal (as was the then-current norm). Drawing on her approach—which was grounded in psychological and sociological evidence—the NAACP argued and won Brown v. Board of Education, which eventually led to the desegregation of schools.

In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, where she advocated that the 14th Amendment applied to gender discrimination as well as racial discrimination.

As the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam, Pauli Murray was there too, protesting both racial discrimination and sexism. And she saw a lot of sexism, noting that no women were invited to give a major speech at the 1963 March on Washington nor were they invited to be part of the delegation to the White House. She wrote:

I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grassroots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. It is indefensible to call a national march on Washington and send out a call which contains the name of not a single woman leader.

She continued to call out “Jane Crow” whenever she saw it. In a 1964 speech delivered in Washington, DC, she highlighted the dual struggle of Black women:

Not only have they stood … with Negro men in every phase of the battle, but they have also continued to stand when their men were destroyed by it. … One cannot help asking: would the Negro struggle have come this far without the indomitable determination of its women?

In 1965, she co-authored “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” with Mary Eastwood. That article discussed how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to women. In 1966, she helped co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and in 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—yes, that RBG—added Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon as authors on her brief for Reed v. Reed, the case that extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women.

Later in her life, Murray taught law at Brandeis University, where she also taught the first classes on African American studies and women’s studies in that university’s history. Then she left academia to go to seminary and, in 1977, she became the first African-American woman—and one of the first women, period—to be ordained in the Episcopal church.

In her 75 years, Pauli Murray was a trailblazer on so many fronts. She was fearless, outspoken, and committed to removing barriers and dismantling the systems of oppression in the United States. Her story is an amazing one that I won’t forget.


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