"True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together."
Pauli Murray (born Anna Pauline Murray) was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910. Her father was a teacher and her mother was a nurse. Both of her parents identified as black, but came from families of mixed racial origins, with ancestors including black slaves, white slave owners, Native Americans, Irish, and free blacks. When Pauli was four years old, her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Soon after, her father began suffering from emotional problems as a result of typhoid fever and was committed to a psychiatric institution. Pauli was sent to Durham, North Carolina to live temporarily with her mother’s family and began attending St. Titus Episcopal Church. Following a beating by a guard, her father passed away and Murray’s temporary stay became permanent.
Pauli lived in Durham until she was sixteen, then moved to New York to finish high school and prepare for college. She moved into a white neighborhood with her cousin Maude, who could pass as white because of her light complexion. Many of the neighbors were uneasy around Pauline, who had a darker complexion.
Pauline graduated with high honors in 1927. Her favorite teacher inspired her to attend Columbia University, but she was turned away because the university did not admit women, but she would not have been able to pay their tuition. Instead, she enrolled at Hunter College, a free university, where she was one of the few students of color. Pauli had several pieces published in the college’s paper during her schooling, and graduated from with a degree in English. While at Hunter, she wrote an essay about her maternal grandfather which later became the basis for Proud Shoes, a memoir about her mother’s family.
After college, Pauli stayed in New York City and took a job with a civil rights organization called The National Urban League. She sold subscriptions to Opportunity, an academic journal for the organization. Later she accepted a position at Camp Tera, a conservation camp established by the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The camp was established as a female equivalent to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) formed under the New Deal, which provided young men with employment while improving infrastructure.
Pauli wore her hair short, wore slacks instead of the standard feminine skirts, and shortened her name to the more androgynous Pauli. She thought of herself as having an ‘inverted sex instinct” that made her behave like a man attracted to feminine, heterosexual woman. During her time at Camp Tera, she began a relationship with a white woman named Peg Holmes. The interracial relationship was met with disapproval from the camp’s director, who forced the couple to leave camp. They left together and traveled the country by walking, hitchhiking, and hopping freight trains.
In her twenties, Pauli had a series of relationships that ended in ways deeply upsetting to her. On two occasions, she required psychiatric hospitalization after a breakup. She also struggled with her identity and pursued hormone treatments to correct her “personal imbalance”. She believed she was born with submerged male sex organs, but this was never proven by doctors.
Murray applied to the University of North Carolina in 1938 to study law, but was turned away because of her race. She wrote to officials about the issue and released their responses to the media. The NAACP took the case, but later dropped it as a result of Murray’s sexuality. This ordeal in part inspired her career in civil rights law. A couple years later, on a bus trip from New York to Durham with her girlfriend at the time, another instance inspired her activism. While in Virginia, she and her girlfriend left the black section in the back of the bus after their seats broke.They refused to move back and were arrested. The Worker’s Defense League (WDL), a socialist labor rights organization paid her fine and, a few months later, hired Murray for their Administrative Committee.
During her time with the WDL, Murray became active in the case of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord. The WDL argued self-defense for Waller and worked to raise funds for an appeal. Murray wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who in turn started advocating for Waller. Through this correspondence, Murray and Roosevelt began a friendship that would last for decades.
In 1941, Murray started law school at Howard University. She was the only woman in her class and immediately became infuriated by the sexism that existed in the school. While there, she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), published articles about segregation, and participated in sit-ins that challenged discriminatory seating policies. She graduated first in her class and continued her studies at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. In her thesis, published in the California Law Review, she argued for equal employment opportunities. She passed the California bar exam in 1945 and was hired as the state’s first black deputy attorney general. She was named “Woman of the Year” by the National Council of Negro Women.
Murray published a book in 1950 called States’ Laws on Race and Color. The writings gave an examination and critique of segregation laws in the United States and assessed the psychological effects. Her writings were praised by Thurgood Marshall, who called the book the “bible” of the civil rights movement. Her argument for civil rights in schools became influential in the Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education that ended segregation in public schools.
Murray spent time in Ghana, where she served as faculty at the Ghana School of Law. She returned to the US in 1961, where she studied at Yale Law School and became the first African American to receive a Doctorate in the Science of Law. She went on to study at Brandeis University where she received a tenure as Full Professor in American Studies.
Murray was at the front of the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Her biggest impact on the Civil Rights Movement was her argument that women’s rights were equally important to civil rights and coined the term “Jane Crow” to demonstrate her beliefs. Murray became good friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
When she was sixty years old, Murray left behind her life as a college professor to attend seminary. In 1977 she became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest among the first generation of Episcopal women priests.