Pauli Murray, portrayed by Becky Stone
Pauli Murray helped transform the law of the land.
She challenged “Jim Crow.” The overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson and the success of Brown v. Board of Education was in great part based on her legal tactic of challenging “separate” instead of “equal” and Pauli’s 746 page “States’ Laws on Race and Color.”
She challenged “Jane Crow” (a term she coined.) Murray provided the argument Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to persuade the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment protects not only blacks but also women – and potentially other minorities – from discrimination.
A mixed-race orphan, Pauli grew up in segregated Depression Era North Carolina. UNC Graduate School rejected because of her race. Harvard Graduate School rejected her because of her sex. In spite of it all, Pauli graduated first in her class at Howard Law School. At Yale University where she earned her doctorate of law, her name now graces one of the university’s new colleges.
Becky Stone is a former teacher of theater and chorus and theater appreciation in Fletcher, NC. While raising their four children, she and her husband started GreenPrints Magazine, a garden quarterly.
Becky has been a regular storyteller-performer at the Biltmore Estate for many years. She has performed as a storyteller at schools, libraries, and festivals throughout Western North Carolina specializing in African American, Appalachian, and world tales.
Her characters include: Pauli Murray, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou.
Pauli Murray – Accepting Challenges by Becky Stone
It may be that when historians look back on 20th century America, all roads will lead to Pauli Murray . . . civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality – no matter what the subject, there is Pauli. – Caroline Ware, Historian
Accepting challenges? Pauli Murray faced them repeatedly. She did not go looking for them. They found her. And when they found her, she took them head on. Armed with intelligence, a gift for words, and a fierce determination to make things right, Pauli sat down at her typewriter and “spoke” her mind.
For a higher education Pauli aimed for Columbia University but did not have the money or academic credentials from Hillside High School in Durham, N.C. She attended an extra year of high school in Brooklyn, living with some cousins. This qualified her for acceptance at Hunter College in New York City as an English Literature major with an emphasis on writing. Her first challenge — escaping the Jim Crow South — achieved.
Murray graduated from Hunter in 1933, in the midst of the Depression. She found a job in the Works Progress Administration teaching laborers. That led her to seek a graduate degree in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On Dec. 2, 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Missouri had to accept a black student into their university’s law school. That gave her reason to hope that UNC would accept her as their first Negro student. Would her case in North Carolina be considered the same? Evidently not. Murray was rejected by UNC, claiming that the university was not allowed to accept students of her race.
Thus began her correspondence with the Dean of the graduate school and the President of the university, arguing that, as a qualified North Carolina-born candidate, she had a right to attend UNC. The letters drew the attention of local and national press. Murray was only too glad to take on the fight. She was a firm believer in “confrontation by typewriter.” The NAACP considered taking her case until they realized her residency in New York weakened their argument. So, Pauli gave up her personal battle with Chapel Hill.
On Dec 5, at the same time Pauli was applying to UNC, President Franklin Roosevelt accepted an honorary degree from Chapel Hill and spoke at the school, proclaiming it a progressive school. Murray took exception to that and wrote President Roosevelt a letter arguing her point of view – another “confrontation by typewriter.” Murray sent a copy of that letter to the President’s wife, thinking, if he never saw her letter, his wife would read it. She did and responded. Thus began a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1940, Murray challenged segregation on interstate public buses and was arrested. She wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt for help. The First Lady wrote back that she had no help to give because segregation was the law, and Pauli had broken the law. The NAACP attorneys met again to consider her case as the one to dismantle Jim Crow. They did not take on her case but were impressed with her arguments. They suggested she apply to Howard Law School.
Murray faced training for a predominantly male profession at a predominantly male school and now faced sexism. She called it “Jane” Crow – sister to “Jim.” At the same time, she confronted racism in the Washington DC community. In 1943 (two decades before the sit-ins of the 60s) Murray organized student sit-ins at local restaurants that would not serve Negroes.
Murray continued to excel at academics and was the first woman to receive top honors at Howard. As the highest-ranking graduating senior, Pauli Murray received the Rosenwald Fellowship that traditionally led to graduate study at Harvard. She applied, only to have Harvard Law reject her application because of her sex. Murray got out her typewriter again and began a letter-writing campaign that led to controversial meetings and votes at the highest level of the Harvard Corporation. She almost won, but almost didn’t count. Pauli used the Rosenwald Fellowship at the Boalt School of Law at the University of California in Berkeley.
On a trip back to Howard University, Murray asked Professor Robinson what had happened to the paper she finished for his class while she was away studying in California. He gave her a copy and commented that her paper was used by the NAACP attorneys as the seminal idea in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS, 1954. The decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren reflects Murray’s thinking about violence dealt to American citizens by segregation. Ironically, she had been derided when she presented the paper to her senior seminar classmates at Howard.
The public may not have known her, but she was well-known in legal circles. In 1951 she compiled the States’ Laws on Race and Color for the Women’s Division of the Methodist Church. It became the “bible” for civil rights lawyers. Murray was instrumental in developing arguments in landmark cases involving women’s rights, e.g. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work on Reed v. Reed.
She played roles in establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Organization for Women. Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, asked Pauli Murray to serve as chair of the Committee on Women’s Civil Rights. She was asked to write a “memo” regarding the justification for including women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act under Title IX. The “memo” convinced Senator Everett Dirksen to vote for it.
And then, Murray had one last public challenge – the church.
It was Murray’s personal spiritual needs that led her to seminary. But while studying there, she felt called to become a priest. Murray was angry and disappointed when she realized that ordained leadership in her spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, was denied to women. Again, she protested by writing letters to those in power and forced them to face this incongruity—this abuse of power—that made women “the other” and treated them as if they were spiritually bankrupt and emotionally incapable of leadership. The discussion was heated and intense, but after two General Conventions, the Episcopal Church decided to ordain women into the clergy. In 1977, the Episcopal Church ordained its first group of women, and Pauli Murray was the only African American among them.
Pauli was never discouraged by temporary defeats. She considered it progress when she could shift someone’s thinking ever so slightly. Then she kept applying pressure with “dogged persistence,” that trait she inherited from the Fitzgeralds. Victories she achieved set the stage for success for all women, all people of color, all citizens of this great country.
1910 Born in Baltimore, Maryland to Agnes Fitzgerald and William Murray.
1914 Moved to Durham to live with grandparents and her aunt after whom she was named, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame. Pauli’s mother had died and her father was unable to take care of the children.
1926 Murray graduates high school at the head of her class and attends a New York City school in order to meet entrance requirements at Hunter College
1933 Graduates from Hunter College and works for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Workers Defense League and the NYC Remedial Reading Project.
1938 Murray’s application to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate school rejected due to her race. Writes a letters to the Chancellor, and President Roosevelt and sends a copy to the First Lady.
1940 She is arrested and jailed for protesting Virginia law requiring segregation on buses.
1941 Enters Howard Law School and encounters sex discrimination from faculty and students.
1944 Graduates from Howard Law School first in her class (and the only female). Applies for admission to Harvard Law School’s graduate program but is rejected because of her gender. Enrolls at University of California’s Boalt Hall Law School.
1951 Writes the States’ Laws on Race and Color for the Women’s Division of the Methodist Church, the “bible” for civil rights lawyers.
1960 Travels to Ghana and teaches at the Ghana School of Law in Accra.
1961 John F. Kennedy appoints Murray to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) Committee on Civil and Political rights.
1964 Murray co-authors Jane Crow and the Law: Sex discrimination and Title VII, in which she draws parallels between sex-based discrimination with Jim Crow laws.
1965 Murray receives a J.S.D from Yale, the first African-American to receive this degree.
1966 Along with Betty Friedan and thirty others, founds the National Organization for Women (NOW).
1977 Pauli Murray becomes the first African-American female priest to be ordained by the Episcopal Church.
1985 Pauli Murray dies of pancreatic cancer in Pittsburgh, PA.
2012 Murray elevated to sainthood by the Episcopal Church
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
It was never hardship which hurt so much as the contrast between what we had and what the white children had.
It seemed as if there were only two kinds of people in the world – They and We – White and Colored. … It pervaded the air I breathed. I learned it in hundreds of ways.
I wondered why some people were called white and some called colored when there were so many colors and you couldn’t tell where one left off and the other began. Some folks were Aunt Pauline’s color – strawberries and cream – and some were like licorice. Some were cream chocolate and some were dark chocolate. Some were caramel and some were peanut butter. Some were like molasses taffy after it has been pulled awhile and some were like gingerbread. I’d heard somebody say colored people were like a flower garden but I thought they were more like good things to eat.
There was pride on both sides of the Fitzgerald family, but my greatest inheritance, perhaps, was dogged persistence, a granite quality of endurance in the face of calamity.
One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.
What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.
Black women, historically, have been doubly victimized by the twin immoralities of Jim Crow and Jane Crow. … Black women, faced with these dual barriers, have often found that sex bias is more formidable than racial bias.
I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.
It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.
About Pauli Murray: It may be that when historians look back on 20th century America, all roads will lead to Pauli Murray . . . civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality – no matter what the subject, there is Pauli. – Susan Ware, Historian
*Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. 2016. Chapters alternate between the two women. The reader learns as much about Eleanor Roosevelt as Pauli Murray, and an unlikely friendship suddenly becomes understandable.
*Rosenberg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. 2017. Reveals Murray’s angst about her gender identity in a sympathetic way that changed my understanding of the issues involved in gender identity.
Murray, Pauli. Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. 1989. (Originally published: Song in a Weary Throat. Harper & Row, 1987.) Murray’s autobiography is filled with details that may seem overwhelming, but help you begin to understand her.
Murray, Pauli. Dark Testament and other poems. 1970. There are some powerful poems in her only collection. Some personal, some political, all movingly inspired.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of An American Family. 1956. Colorful characters that Pauli Murray clearly loves. Not all the memories are easy to handle, but there is joy told from a child’s perspective
Murray, Pauli, compiled and edited: States’ Laws on Race and Color 2016 edition. This remarkable, hard-to-find resource is an exhaustive compilation of state laws and local ordinances in effect in 1950 that mandated racial segregation and of pre-Brown-era civil rights legislation re-published in 2016 by University of Georgia Press. (available through Interlibrary loan.)
*Available in Greenville County Library System