Woman of the Week

Woman of the Week
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Woman Who Pushed the Limits: Pauli Murray

It happens to be Pauli Murray week here in Durham, North Carolina so it’s only fitting to make Ms. Murray our beautiful black woman of the week! She was a lawyer, poet, writer, educator, civil rights activist, and priest - the first black woman ordained in the Episcopal church. With every new woman I research I feel a little volt of excitement, hope, and inspiration. Women like Pauli Murray were challenging racism and sexism decades before the civil rights movement. It’s fascinating to me that most of us either are unaware of or forget that most world transforming movements of social and political justice begin long before the larger public gets a wisp of it. They begin with the hands, feet, and minds of countless, often unnamed brave, determined, passionate men and women of integrity who tire of seeing daily human injustices on a range of levels. It makes me think and wonder what injustices I see regularly but fail to be moved enough to take any steps against.

Anne Pauline Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland. Though born into a loving two-parent home her childhood changed drastically at age three when her mother died from a brain hemorrhage. Her father had earlier suffered medical and mental complications from a bout with Typhoid fever. Unable to care for his six children alone he split up the family and sent Pauli to live with her aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. Pauli Murray's new family was made up of educators committed to civil and social justice who influenced her love of reading and learning from a very early age. The courage and fortitude she observed from her caregivers helped shape Murray's future work and determination to strive for what she believed was right and just. After receiving a mediocre education in the South because that was all that was available to blacks, she was determined to go to a good desegregated college, even if it meant repeating high school courses up north. She moved to Queens, and after a year of high school classes she enrolled at Hunter College in 1928. Four years later Murray graduated with honors and degrees in English and History. She was one of only four black students in a class of 247.

Her life and work experiences following college compelled her to further her education. She wanted to fight racial discrimination with her mind as well as her heart and hands. In 1938 she applied to UNC-Chapel Hill but was denied on account of her race, Murray wrote letters of appeal to the president of the college, members of the NAACP and even Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though she wasn’t accepted to UNC she was able to secure her reputation with influential leaders as a black woman willing to fight for civil rights. It would not be the last time she called upon the United States President and his wife.

In order to better fight for civil rights Murray continued her education to become a civil rights lawyer at the historical black college, Howard University where she received her first law degree in 1944. Her thesis at Howard proposed a legal challenge to segregation based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all Americans. In 1951 she further developed this thesis into a book "States' Laws on Race and Color." It became the foundation of the NAACP's groundbreaking work in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which led to desegregation in public schools.

It was at the male dominated Howard that Murray truly encountered the new battle she was forced to fight, that of sex discrimination. This continued when she applied to Harvard Law School for her LLM, Masters in Law. She was the recipient of the Rosenfield Fellowship that usually secured entrance to Harvard, but the University was not accepting women. Murray again fought this decision and even got President Roosevelt to write a letter on her behalf. But it would be another two decades before women were admitted to Harvard. So Murray went to the University of California at Berkeley instead and received her Masters in 1945. But she would continue her fight against sex discrimination more professionally.

She spent the next several years working in law and even began chronicling her life story as it was wrapped in these social and civil injustices. Amongst many achievements she is well known for her memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American family. The book explores issues of personal and societal cultural and racial relations in a country still struggling to find its identity post Civil War.

In 1961 while on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women Committee, Murray continued her fight for women's rights by cataloging all the ways in which state laws kept women from legal equality. She pushed for the Supreme Court to disqualify these laws based in the fifth and fourteenth Amendments. In 1964 she campaigned for sex discrimination in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The bill passed and became law in 1965. To help ensure that this new law didn’t slip under the rug and become ineffective Murray got to work and wrote and published a ground breaking piece in the George Washington Law Review entitled, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII." Then in 1966 she and 29 others founded the National Organization for Women (NOW)

Pauli Murray never seemed to tire of pushing the boundaries and cracking open the doors for those whom would come after her. After all that she had already accomplished in her lifetime she took another step. At the age of 62 she decided to go to seminary. She enrolled at the General Theological Seminary in NYC and received a Masters of Divinity degree. On January 8, 1977 at the National Cathedral of Washington D.C. Anne Pauline Murray became the first black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. But perhaps the most personally moving piece to this was that Murray celebrated her first Eucharist service in a little church back in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This happened to be the same church in which Murray’s grandmother, a slave, had been baptized in 1864. Pauli Murray recounts the significance of this in her autobiographical narrative,

"All the strands of my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner … [n]ow I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom 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."

Pauli Murray died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1985.

The Pauli Murray Human Relations Award was created in 1990 in Orange Country, NC. It is awarded annually to a youth, adult, and business that, according to the county's website, "have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all citizens.

Learn More - Visit Durham's "The Pauli Murray Project" website at http://paulimurrayproject.org/