Pauli Murray is not a household name in the annals of civil rights history. But with her long list of accolades, it’s a wonder that the life of the queer, black, feminist activist, lawyer, historian, author, poet, and priest is not covered in most history classes.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Murray’s lifelong dedication to fighting racial, gender, and class discrimination began in 1938, when she worked with the NAACP to enroll at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which was all-white at the time.
Though she was not admitted to UNC, Murray’s campaign for equal rights continued: she was arrested in 1940 for refusing to sit in the back of a bus and during her time at Howard Law, she organized and participated in lunch counter sit-ins with her classmates in Washington, DC.
In 1944 Murray graduated as both the only woman and the valedictorian of her class at Howard Law. One year later, she received her masters in law from the University of California, Berkeley. A committed student and attorney, Murray earned her doctorate in law 20 years later from Yale University – the first African American to ever do so.
Murray’s legal writings were so influential, they were praised by two Supreme Court justices. Thurgood Marshall described Murray’s book States’ Laws on Race and Color as a civil rights legal Bible. Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Murray as a co-author of her brief in Reed v. Reed, stating that much of her inspiration came from Murray’s paper “Jane Crow and the Law,” in which she compared sex discrimination to racial discrimination under the Jim Crow laws.
Murray served on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women under John F. Kennedy and co-founded the National Association for Women (NOW). In addition to States’ Laws on Race and Color, Murray also co-authored a legal book entitled The Constitution and the Government of Ghana. She published a book of poetry entitled Dark Testament and Other Poems, as well as three autobiographies.
In 1977, the Protestant Episcopal Church ordained Pauli Murray, making her the first African-American female priest.
Clearly, Murray’s work as attorney and activist was extensive. But if anything stands out from her influence in American history, it is what scholar and author Anthony Pinn calls her “deep regard for mundane connections as meaningful beyond the obvious.” Despite Murray’s involvement in a number of broader movements, she always maintained an acute awareness of self – her family and history, her strengths and her flaws, her own lived experience. It was that rare cognizance of the importance of recognizing each person’s own lived experience that made her such a force to be reckoned with in everything that she did; movements as a whole may be responsible for inciting change, but it is the individuals within the movements – their private relationships and personal connections – that hold them together.
Much of Murray’s commitment to fighting discrimination on all levels came from her own identity as a gender-nonconforming woman living in a society defined and ruled by binaries. Thus, as this month of Pride comes to a close, it is only fitting to pay homage to a woman who left with us not only an impressive legacy of academic and legal work, but a personal and spiritual legacy of love and community, of hope for those who do not fit into the categories assigned to them by a rigid society, those who are fighting for a world in which equal rights are not a privilege, but a given.