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Activist, Priest, Feminist: Get to Know Pauli Murray

In the African-American community, “standing on the shoulders of giants” is a phrase commonly used to refer to the social and racial progress made today by African-American leaders, only possible due to the groundwork and sacrifice of those before them.

Posted By Shayla Martin on Feb 16, 2017

Well-known black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Mary McLeod Bethune are just a few of the giants you may have already heard of, but Durhamite Dr. Pauli Murray also deserves a spot on that list.

Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910 and moved to Durham at the age of four to live with her aunt after the death of her mother. In 1926, she graduated from Hillside High School before moving to New York City to attend Hunter College and work for the Works Projects Administration. In 1938, she applied for admission to the all-white University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was rejected on the basis of race, despite the relatively progressive stance of then university President Frank Porter Graham. Thanks to support from the NAACP, Murray’s case received national publicity, and she developed a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt after writing to both the President and the First Lady. Although she was not admitted to the university, her challenge against segregated education catapulted her into the Civil Rights Movement and pioneered a path for UNC’s desegregation in 1951.

On Murray’s way home to Durham in 1940, she was arrested and imprisoned in Virginia for refusing to sit in the back of a bus, a full 15 years before Rosa Parks made history for the same act of protest. In 1941, Murray entered Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., and graduated as valedictorian (and the only female) in 1944. Valedictorians were usually rewarded with a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University, but Murray was rejected because of her gender. The overt discrimination Murray faced in school led her to coin the term "Jane Crow" in reference to sex discrimination — the sister of Jim Crow.

In 1953 the NAACP, then led by Thurgood Marshall, used arguments from Murray’s senior-year seminar paper as part of the organization's legal strategy in Brown v. Board of Education without crediting her assistance in the landmark case. Marshall later called her 1951 book States' Laws on Race and Color the “Bible for civil rights lawyers." The remainder of Murray’s life reads like a list of superlative-worthy accomplishments. Highlights including an appointment to President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women (1961); co-authoring Jane Crow and the Law: Sex discrimination and Title VII, in which she draws parallels between sex-based discrimination and Jim Crow laws (1964); co-founding the National Organization for Women (1966); and becoming the first African-American female priest in the Episcopal Church (1977).

It wasn’t only her gender and race that shaped her experience as a lawyer and civil rights activist in the early 20th century. Dr. Murray was an advocate in the LGBTQ community, even though it made her a target of the Red Scare during the 1950s. She also embraced gender non-conformity, opting to wear men’s clothing at times, but her nonconforming identity made it easy for historians and storytellers to omit her decades of intellectual, social, and political contributions to a variety of civil rights movements. In a progressive and open community like Durham, these contributions are celebrated.

How to Celebrate Dr. Pauli Murray in Durham

The Pauli Murray Project, part of the Duke Human Rights Center in Durham, has embarked on a variety of community projects to teach visitors and residents about Murray’s achievements. Look for murals celebrating Murray along exterior walls of businesses and schools in Durham, which were commissioned as a part of the Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life public art project in 2009. The project has also created an online exhibit detailing key events in Murray’s life, and in a hallmark achievement earlier this year, Murray’s childhood home (pictured above) was designated a National Historic Landmark and received a $238,000 federal grant to open to the public in 2020.

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For further reading, check out these articles and websites related to Murray:

About the Author

Shayla Martin