Lesson 130:
Pauli Murray

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 6/30/2023

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Pauli Murray. Pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"True emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past in deriving strength from all of my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors."

As we come to the end of Pride Month 2023, I wanted to devote a little time to the remarkable life of Rev. Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray --civil rights attorney, Episcopal priest, scholar, and advocate. Born in 1910 Baltimore, their mother tragically died when Murray was only four, and their father succumbed to depression and was later murdered in a mental hospital, and so Murray was raised by an aunt and grandparents, in a time when the threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan was never too far away. Murray later moved to New York City and graduated from Hunter College in 1933 (as Columbia College did not at the time admit women). Throughout the 1930's Murray grappled with sexual and gender identity --this is in fact when they took on the preferred male-identifying name of "Pauli." A gifted photographer but an even more prolific author, Murray worked as a teacher with the New York City Remedial Reading Project, which offered a great deal of opportunity to write and publish. Among other publications, Pauli's essays and articles about civil rights would regularly appear in The Crisis and in Common Sense (both publications of the NAACP).

Pauli took the unusual (and risky!) step of petitioning to apply to graduate school at the University of North Carolina (current events alert!) --at the time an all-white institution. Such a prospect was considered sufficiently unobtainable that even the NAACP declined to actively support this effort. Pauli had in the meantime cultivated the acquaintance of then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as A. Philip Randolph (see Lesson #68 in this series); associations which would later carry consequences. Pauli is listed as one of the founders of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), along with Bayard Rustin (see Lesson #5 in this series), and James Farmer (Lesson #17). In 1943 they published a hugely important essay: "Negroes Are Fed Up;" and also a poem, Dark Testament, both of which spoke to the Harlem Race Riot of 1935.

In 1944 Murray graduated from Howard University Law School --while largely identifying as a man but still presenting as a woman, Murray famously coined the expression "Jane Crow" to describe the experience. They then applied to Harvard Law for an advanced degree on a Rosenwald Fellowship but was turned down --reportedly not due to racism (exact same current events alert!) but definitely due to sexism. They instead opted for the University of California Boalt School of Law; their graduate thesis was titled "The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment." In 1945 Murray was named deputy attorney general for the state of California; the first African American to hold that post. In 1951 Pauli published States' Laws On Race and Color, a book that would later be described by Thurgood Marshall as the "Bible" for civil rights litigation, and was conspicuously referenced during Brown v. Board of Education arguments.

In 1952 the scourge of McCarthyism caught up with Murray and cost them a number of prestigious posts due to affiliation with "radicals" like Marshall, Randolph, and particularly Ms. Roosevelt. Unbowed, Pauli went on to publish the gripping biographical account Proud Shoes, which led in turn to a job offer in the litigation dept. of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison (as in, Lloyd), where she would meet lifelong partner Irene Barlow. In 1960 Pauli was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Committee on Civil And Political Rights, but the issue of intersectionality was never far from their priorities; notably in 1963 Murray took Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King to task for not including a single woman speaker at the March On Washington. Perhaps the most fascinating coda to this remarkable life comes in 1977, when in the wake of Irene Barlow's passing, Murray became the very first African-American woman Episcopal priest. Pauli died in 1985, having never come out publicly.

For a comprehensive listing of Pauli's writings, visit the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice: https://www.paulimurraycenter.com/paulis-writing

Next page - Lesson 131: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

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