“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.”― Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray was born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the fourth of six children. After her mother died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914, Pauli was sent to live with her maternal aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. Her father, who was a graduate from Howard University and a principal in the Baltimore Public School system, was sent to a State Hospital after his wife’s death due to depression and typhoid fever. There, A white guard murdered him with a baseball bat. Murray, twelve years old at the time, traveled to Baltimore to attend his funeral and later wrote about seeing his poorly stitched head in the casket.
Murray was a determined student and graduated at the age of 15. She had her sights set on college in New York but found financial and gender barriers to her dreams. Determined, she moved in with a cousin in Queens to gain residency and enrolled in Richmond Hill High School to gain more credits. She was the only black student out of four thousand. She earned her space at Hunter College two years later and moved to the Harlem Y.M.C.A., immersing herself in the culture available at the time, including befriending Langston Hughes and listening to lectures by Mary McLeod Bethune.
In 1930, at the age of twenty, she secretly married William Wynn, although she quickly realized it was a mistake, and they eventually had the marriage annulled. In 1934 she had a brief relationship with a woman counselor at a W.P.A. camp where she worked. During the 1930s and 1940s, she sought hormone therapy, feeling a male sense of self. Doctors declined, and she did not receive any treatment. Her struggle with sexuality and gender weighed heavily on her, and she suffered mental breakdowns nearly annually from the time she was 19.
The Great Depression hit just as Murray began her studies, but struggling through she graduated in 1933. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and after years of various jobs, Murray decided to return home to North Carolina. With various white relatives having attended the University of North Carolina she applied to law school, only to receive a rejection stating that members of her race were not admitted.
In 1940 she went with a friend from New York to Durham for the Easter Holiday. When changing buses in Richmond, Virginia, they, after having discussed Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, refused to move to the back of the bus. They were thrown in jail, charged with disorderly conduct, and fined forty-three dollars. This protest happened 15 years before Rosa Parks made history.
Although Murray vowed to never return to Virginia, six months later, the Workers Defense League asked her to help raise money on behalf of Odell Walker, a black sharecropper who had killed a white man in self-defense. She traveled to Virginia and gave a moving speech to a crowd that included Thurgood Marshall and the Howard law professor Leon Ransom. Ransom suggested she apply to Howard law school, and Marshall later wrote her a recommendation that gained her admittance.
At Howard, she was the only woman and determined to make the top of her class, which she did. While in law school in the 1940s, she argued that ‘separate but equal’ law violated the 13th and 14th amendments, and her paper on the subject was referenced during the 1954 Supreme Court Trial of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
After Howard, she applied to Harvard Law School but was denied admittance because of her sex. She replied to their rejection, stating that if she knew how to change her sex she would, but instead maybe they could change their policy. They didn’t. She attended Berkeley and earned her Master of Law degree in 1945.
The Methodist Church hired her to write a pamphlet explaining segregation laws in the United States. Instead of a pamphlet, she wrote a seven-hundred-and-forty-six-page book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” that became and reference for major Civil Rights organizations.
In 1956 her first autobiography was published by Harper & Brothers, Proud Shoes: The Story Of An American Family, which chronicles the lives of her maternal grandparents.
In 1960 she went overseas to Ghana School of Law, just as the Civil Rights period began in the United States. She didn’t stay long, returning to the United States and earning her doctorate of juridical science at the Yale Law School in 1965 – the first African-American to earn a doctorate of jurisprudence from Yale.
In 1965 she suggested that women organize a march on Washington, and in 1966 met with Betty Friedan and others to organize the National Organization for Women.
Fighting hard for the rights of both minorities and women, Murray saw that the Civil Rights movement left out women, then the Women’s movement left out minorities and poor people. She did this outside of the spotlight, possibly to keep her private light from view. Although they never lived together, Irene Barlow was her life partner, and they spent nearly a quarter-century together until Barlow’s death in 1973 from cancer. Although Murray reportedly did not throw anything away, their private correspondence was destroyed. After Irene’s death, Murray renounced her professorship at Brandeis University and enrolled in the General Theological Seminary. In 1977 she became the first African American and the first female ordained as an Episcopal priest. She was sixty-seven at the time.
Her first and only collection of poems published, Dark Testament and Other Poems, was released in 1970.
Murray had a twenty-five-year correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, captured in the book The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott. Their friendship began when Murray wrote an angry letter to F.D.R. claiming he cared more about fascism abroad than white supremacy at home. Eleanor invited her to tea.
She died of pancreatic cancer in 1985 and is buried under the same headstone as her partner Irene Barlow.
A second autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, was published in 1987 and has been the basis of much recent scholarship, including the Documentary, My Name is Pauli Murray, which was released on Amazon Prime Video in September 2021.
Her childhood in Durham, North Carolina, was made a National Historic Landmark on December 23, 2016.
Lesson from Murray:
Murray was a trailblazer on so many fronts. A lawyer, a Civil Rights activist, a writer, a scholar, a poet, and a priest. To say she was ahead of her time seems too trite – she created the time we live in, although her name is not well known because she shunned the spotlight. Her tenaciousness despite the struggle literally made this country better.