Pauli Murray: the lawyer, activist, writer and priest who fought Jim and Jane Crow
The trailblazing attorney devoted her legal career to tackling racial and gender discrimination in the US, but what drove the civil rights icon and LGBTQ+ pioneer to take up the fight in the first place? Jonny Wilkes explores the remarkable life of Pauli Murray
When Pauli Murray attempted to enrol at the University of North Carolina in 1938, she was refused due to her race. She went on to study civil rights law at the historically black Howard University in Washington DC, committed to ending Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation in the US. Graduating top of her class, Murray then tried to enrol at Harvard and was again refused, this time due to her gender. Highlighting the plight of black women, she wrote: “What I’m experiencing is Jane Crow.”
In the legal career that followed, Murray made enormous strides in the fight against racial and gender discrimination. In the early 1940s, she bet her Howard professor $10 that Jim Crow would be overturned in 25 years; the process began in a little over a decade, thanks in no small part to her arguments of the unconstitutionality of ‘separate but equal’ being utilised in the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in 1954. Her book States’ Laws on Race and Color (1950) was described as “the bible for civil rights lawyers”.
Murray’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment – not to “deny to any person... the equal protection of the laws” – then inspired another landmark Supreme Court case, in 1971, for women’s rights. She fought publicly for equality, while fighting privately for her own identity in the face of what one biographer called a sense of “inbetweenness”.
Murray’s strong-willed character had been evident from an early age. Although born with African-American, white and Native American heritage on 20 November 1910, Anna Pauline Murray grew up as ‘coloured’ in the South. An orphan by the time she was 12, she was raised by relatives in North Carolina, and – with the support of her aunt, Pauline – she enjoyed a freedom of expression not commonly afforded one of her race and gender.
The extremely self-motivated Murray then moved to New York at 16 to get a better education, graduating in English in 1933 from the all-women’s Hunter College. In the North she hoped to be free of Jim Crow’s grip too, but in 1940 she was arrested for not moving to the back of a bus, much like Rosa Parks 15 years later. The incident lit a fire in her to take up civil rights law in the first place.
Pauli Murray as a LGBTQ+ icon
By then Murray faced, as well as discrimination, a deeply personal form of inbetweenness that caused much confusion and distress, and yet instilled in her a need to push against societal boundaries: she was gender nonconforming. While always referring to herself as ‘she/her’, Murray went by the gender-neutral name Pauli, dressed in men’s clothing, and was attracted, in her own words, to “extremely feminine and heterosexual women”. Despite a brief marriage to a man in 1930, she became convinced she was “a girl who should have been a boy”.
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Travelling the Great Depression-hit US in the 1930s, working a heap of jobs, she hopped trains pretending to be a man, calling herself “the dude” or “Pete”. When denied a postgraduate place at Harvard, she wrote a reply saying: “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements”. Indeed, Murray spoke to many doctors about hormone treatments and to request surgical investigation for male sexual organs in her body, all to no avail. As such, she regularly suffered from bouts of depression to the point of routine hospitalisation.
Yet Murray was able to direct her frustrations, determination and fierce intellect into ending Jim (and Jane) Crow. She began pouring her feelings and activism into writing, dubbed “confrontation by typewriter”, and produced poetry and autobiographies. Her letters even made a friend out of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. As a lawyer, Murray practised in California and New York – during which time she formed a long-time relationship with a woman named Irene Barlow – and saw her legal arguments used in Brown v Board of Education, making segregation in schools unconstitutional.
What is Pauli Murray's legacy?
Simply, Murray’s achievements are too many to elucidate: in the 1960s alone, she was a founding member of the National Organisation of Women; spent time in Ghana working at a law school; became the first African-American to receive a doctorate in law from Yale; was appointed vice president of Benedict College, South Carolina; and made a law professor at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, where she taught for five years.
In 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsberg – the future Supreme Court justice – named Murray in her brief on her landmark gender discrimination case, Reed v Reed, for her basis that the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection of the law to any “person”.
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Then, quite suddenly, Murray left law and turned her attention to being a spiritual leader, becoming the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopalian priest. Now she is one of the church’s saints. Murray died of pancreatic cancer on 1 July 1985, aged 74. A phrase often used by historians, writers and activists about her is that she was ‘ahead of her time’ – so much so that she has often been out of sight of history.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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