Published February 27, 2023
"I speak for my race and my people - The human race and just people." — Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray
In this episode, UnPacking Pauli Murray Part 2, you will learn about some of the formative events that shaped Pauli Murray's career as a Black, queer, legal and civil rights pioneer. You will also hear Pauli Murray in their own words from an interview recorded on February 13, 1976, with Genna Rae McNeil, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Southern Oral History Program. After listening, we are sure you will agree that we cannot tell the story of America without Pauli Murray!
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; Amanda Hurwitz; and Deb Fowler.
Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
In this season, my colleague Kathleen Barker will introduce you to a few of the characters featured in our Intersections & Connections curriculum and some fascinating - and empowering - backstories. We're beginning this season with Pauli Murray. And if that name is new to you, you are not alone. But after listening, we are certain you will agree that we cannot tell the story of America without Pauli Murray. Take it away, Kathleen!
Pauli Murray was many things: a black queer legal and civil rights pioneer as well as an author, lawyer, poet, priest, and human rights activist. As we explored in part one of the Unpacking Pauli Murray podcast, they experienced discrimination early in life growing up in segregated North Carolina. Unfortunately, Pauli continued to face race- and gender-based discrimination in their attempts to attend graduate school.
In 1938, Pauli Murray applied to a graduate program in sociology at the University of North Carolina. UNC had never admitted a black student, and the school was technically prevented from doing so by the North Carolina State constitution. This however, did not stop Pauli from applying.
They sent me an application blank and they had written into the printed application blank, race and religion. This has been typed in, you know, so that it stands out apart from a normal form. I think I answered it but may have said, "But what difference does it make?" Obviously tongue in cheek. And in due course, I got back a letter from Dr. Frank Graham, Frank P. Graham, who was the then President of the University of North Carolina, saying that, "I'm sorry, but the Constitution and the laws of the state of North Carolina prohibit me from admitting one of your race to the law school."
Pauli had hoped that a recent court case related to higher education in Missouri could help them gain admission to UNC. In 1935, the Registrar at the Law School of the University of Missouri, a man named Silas Woodson Canada, refused admission to Lloyd Gaines because he was black, instead offering Gaines a scholarship to study out of state. Gaines and the NAACP sued the all-white university, and the case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On December 14, 1938, the Court held that Missouri failed in its constitutional duty to provide equal protection under the law because the state failed to provide equal access to public education within the state.
Now, the Lloyd Gaines case decided in December 1938 held it was the beginning of the long read back from Plessy vs. Ferguson, you know the "separate but equal" decision. Lloyd Gaines, in the educational field, was the long road back to the 1954 decision and what it said was: A state has a responsibility to educate its residents. It cannot shift this responsibility to other states by giving out-of-state scholarships. It must give substantially equal facilities to its colored citizens as well as its whites or must admit them to the existing institutions. It went on to say that this is a "personal right" and in a sense it does not matter if only one person is seeking it.
Since there were no public graduate programs or professional schools in North Carolina for African American students, Pauli thought that UNC would certainly have to admit them after this court decision. Pauli would be disappointed though: they received a rejection letter from UNC on December 14, 1938. The letter starts like this:
Dear Miss Murray,
I write to state that I am not authorized to grant you admission to our Graduate School. Under the laws of North Carolina, and under the resolutions of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, members of your race are not admitted to the University. It has long been the social policy of the State to maintain separate schools for the whites and Negroes…
Very cordially yours, W. W. Pierson Dean
The story of Pauli’s application to UNC made for sensational news. Some headlines suggested that Pauli was an outside agitator sent to challenge the university President’s commitment to liberal ideas. Although Pauli did have supporters among the student body and the faculty at UNC, the university’s leaders ultimately feared that Pauli’s admission would cause too much backlash. Murray wanted to sue the university, and asked the N.A.A.C.P. to represent them.
And it suddenly burst out over the radio, you know, and became sort of national news. But it was this "unidentified Negress." [Laughter] It's in the headlines, makes application to the University of North Carolina." This correspondence went back and forth for a while and then I put the whole stuff together in like an envelope and sent it down to the NAACP, namely to Thurgood Marshall.
I then got the shock of my life. I learned that the NAACP very carefully picks its cases, they had to win every case, it goes carefully into the background of the person who is going to be the bearer of the case, and all of this being said to a proud Fitzgerald Murray, you know …"What does he mean by ‘going carefully into the background of it?"’ But there was a certain kind of …the way I read this was that, "We have to be very careful of the people we select. They have to be Simon-pure and you are not quite Simon-pure enough." I was too maverick.
Ultimately, NAACP lawyers refused to take Pauli’s case. Despite owning property in North Carolina, Pauli was still legally a resident of New York, and NAACP leaders felt that Pauli’s residential status would compromise their legal strategy. Although Pauli wasn’t able to sue, this rejection motivated them to write to President Franklin Roosevelt for support.
On December 5, 1938, President Roosevelt delivered a speech at the University of North Carolina upon receiving an honorary degree. Pauli was frustrated by the President’s speech, which praised UNC as a liberal institution! In response, Pauli prepared a letter to the President.
“You said yesterday that you associate yourself with young people and you emphasize their importance in the current affairs of our nation. Can you ask your young Negroes to return to the south? Do you feel as we do that the ultimate test of democracy in the United States will be the way in which it solves its Negro problem? No President Roosevelt, our problems are not just those of other people. They are far deeper, far more trying, and far more hopeless.
The letter goes on to call out the President for his lack of involvement with the safety and acceptance of African Americans in southern society.
Pauli Asked President Roosevelt when he would ensure that African Americans could sit down with white students and have equal educational opportunities in the south.
Fearing the President wouldn’t see the letter, Pauli also sent a copy to the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, a correspondence that started a friendship that would last until the First Lady’s death in 1962. Pauli wrote:
“You do not remember me, but I was the girl who did not stand up when you passed through the social hall of Camp Tera during one of your visits in the winter of 1934 and 35. Miss Mills criticized me afterward, but I thought and still feel that you are the sort of person who prefers to be accepted as a human being and not as a human paragon.…
Now I make an appeal to you on my own behalf. I am sending you a copy of a letter which I wrote to your husband, President Roosevelt, in the hope that you will try to understand the spirit and deep perplexity in which it is written, if he is too busy. I know he has the problems of our nation on his hand, and I would not bother him to write him, except that my problem isn't mine alone, it is the problem of my people, and in these trying days, it will not let me or any other thinking negro rest. Need I say anymore?”
The First Lady replied to Pauli within 2 weeks saying:
“I have read the copy of your letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly. I think they are coming, however, and sometimes it is better to fight hard with conciliatory methods. the south is changing but don't push too fast. There's a great change in youth, for instance, and that is a hopeful sign.”
Change didn’t happen as quickly as Pauli would like, but they remained dedicated to the advancement of African American civil rights.
Pauli returned to New York City after being denied admission to UNC, continuing their work with the WPA, as well as with labor and civil rights organizations. Pauli took an impromptu stand for civil rights while traveling from New York to North Carolina in the spring of 1940. On March 23, Pauli and their friend, Mac, were arrested in Virginia, for violating segregation laws when they refused to move to seats in the back of a Greyhound bus.
As so often happened in those early days, an incident would arise out of almost intolerable situations. I mean, a person could be pushed into a position where there was just nothing you could do almost but just fight back... My friend and I were traveling from New York down to Durham to visit my two Aunts, you know, at the ancestral home for Easter. My friend was West Indian in background and could not believe that there were such things as real segregation laws in the South..
Her name was Adelene McBean. Knowing that Mac, as we used to call her, knowing that Mac was volatile, I did everything I could to try to borrow a car to make this trip. And it wound up that on Easter evening, we were headed from Washington to Durham on a Greyhound Bus. The bus we started out on was a long, very nice bus, plenty of room. And we probably sat somewhat to the rear of the center of the bus. We stopped at Richmond, I guess, for a rest stop and lunch stop or what not.
When the bus stopped in Richmond, Virginia, all of the passengers were required to transfer. Unfortunately for Pauli and Mac, the new bus was too small to accommodate all of the passengers traveling south, and they were forced to ride in an older, less comfortable substitute bus.
And so, we got in and sat, again, slightly rear of center…The way in which the people filled up made it clear that Negroes would fill the back of the bus, that there were plenty of Negroes. But somehow, the way in which the population, bus population, shifted, brought on a considerable number of white people, more than had been in the past. And so, the time came when the driver came back and asked us to get up and move back. When I am looking out the window and seeing that when those Negros get on there are going to be enough Negroes to take care of all that back so there is no reason for me to move. And we so inform him.
By this point in the ride, Mac had developed a sharp pain in her side, and refused to stay in the uncomfortable seat or move to a broken one. Pauli approached the driver, a man named Frank W. Morris, about moving, but he refused the request. When the bus made its next scheduled stop in Petersburg, Virginia, Pauli and Mac dashed to more comfortable seats closer to the front of the bus, although they were careful to maintain the color line and sit behind all of the white bus passengers. Nevertheless, Morris spotted Pauli and Mac in their new seats and insisted that they move back to their original, uncomfortable place, threatening to have them arrested for violating segregation laws.
And it appears, since I want to get home for Easter, I don't want to be arrested, why am I making all this effort for? To get home to my folks for Easter. Apparently they are prepared to make a compromise, that we move back to this seat and they check the seat and find that it isn't really broken, it’s that the cushion is out of place. But in the process, apparently the driver thinks that there might be a court case and so he goes up and gets a batch of volunteer name and address witness cards and routinely hands out all of these witness cards to every white person in the front of the bus and when he gets to the last white person, he then turns, you see. At which point, I say, "Driver, how about giving us some of those cards? We are also witnesses." And they charged us with creating a disturbance, breaking the segregation law, violating the segregation law and creating a disturbance.
Meanwhile, the minute that we got into our jail cell, we sat down and did a report, a summary, immediately of the case, the facts, a chart of the bus, everything we could think of that would be of any value in this case. When the lawyers came, we presented it to them and they looked it over and they said, "Well, this is practically as good as a lawyer's brief." So, this implied that you should study law. Well, I throw this in, because this again is one of the pointers toward law school.
Pauli and Mac spent three nights in the segregated jail of Petersburg, while local members of the NAACP tried to secure their release.
When the state discovered that the NAACP was going to challenge this and probably use this as a test case, it withdrew the charge of the segregation statute and left standing the creation of a disturbance.
They convicted me and Roy Wilkins informed us that the NAACP could not afford to appeal the case and therefore we would have to either pay the fine or go to jail. We refused to pay the fine. We went to jail and while in jail, began to use Gandhian tactics on the jailer, with some modest success. The jailer who had threatened to throw my you-know-what in the dungeon when I came in, as we went out apologized in the way in which Southerners often used to not only apologize, "you are sort of the better kind,"
We insisted on having all our books and pencils and typewriters and by this time, it was known that the White House was interested in the case. My sister here in Washington had interrupted Mrs. Roosevelt in the middle of a garden party and told her that her sister had been arrested in Virginia and Mrs. Roosevelt had called the governor of Virginia and by this time, somebody alerted the people in Petersburg, "Be careful."
Pauli and Mac appeared before a judge on March 26, 1940. The judge dismissed the charges related to violating segregation codes, thwarting Pauli’s opportunity to attack segregation from a legal standpoint (at least for now). The travelers were, however, found guilty of disturbing the peace and each fined $5 and court costs. Upon their release from jail, Pauli and Mac finally boarded a bus to Durham, only to find that their bus driver was once again Frank W. Morris! Fortunately, this voyage proceeded without incident.
In June 1940, Pauli joined the Board of the Workers Defense League. As part of the organization, they undertook a national speaking tour, sharing the experience of their arrest in Virginia to raise money for the legal defense of Odell Walker. Walker was a sharecropper who shot his white employer, Oscar Davis, when Davis refused to give Walker his due share of their wheat crop. Pauli’s work on behalf of Walker led them to consider law school as a path to fighting Jim Crow. So Pauli began law school at Howard University in the fall of 1941. When a female colleague dropped out during their first term, Pauli became the only woman (aside from the Registrar) in the entire school! It was here at Howard that Pauli began to feel the impact of what they would eventually call Jane Crow: discrimination based on gender.
So at the law school, two things happened. I became aware of sex prejudice. I became aware of it in my Freshman year at law school. It came upon me as a terrible shock. I had not grown up in a family where limitations were placed upon women. My whole family tradition had been self-sufficient women. My grandfather, patriarch though he was, believed in his daughters being self-sufficient and independent and so it just simply was not a part of my family tradition to expect any limitations upon what a woman could do or what she couldn’t do. I had never thought of myself in terms of a woman. I had thought of myself in preparing to be a civil rights lawyer for this cause. I had not been in school, I guess in two or three days, and Professor Robert Ming, the late Robert Ming, said, I can't tell whether he was kidding or being sarcastic or what, but he said, "We don't know why women come to law school anyway, but since you're here…" However you take it, one has to respond, I mean, you can't just say that this is really kidding.
And so, what I'm really saying is that removing the racial factor, Howard University being a school where the racial factor was not the problem, immediately the sex factor was isolated and stood there.
And so, my whole experience at law school was an experience of learning really for the first time what, in a way, a crude kind of sexism can be…This is the beginning of my conscious feminism, it began at Howard University back in the 1940s.
In 1944, Pauli took a course with Professor Spottswood Robinson III. During a discussion of the 1896 US Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, Pauli rejected the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the Court. Instead, Pauli argued that segregation would end within 25 years, if lawyers and activists attacked it as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Now classmates laughed, but Pauli was ultimately right! Ten years later, when Robinson joined with Thurgood Marshall and other legal minds at the NAACP to try to end Jim Crow, Robinson remembered Pauli’s law school paper and presented it to his colleagues. These same colleagues would soon argue the case of Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court.
Pauli excelled at Howard, and the Dean of the law school encouraged them to apply for a prestigious Rosenwald Fellowship, which would allow Pauli to further their legal studies. Pauli indicated on their application that they would like to earn a Master's Degree at Harvard University Law School. Although Pauli was awarded the fellowship, they were rejected by Harvard Law, which did not admit women.
Although my Rosenwald Fellowship called for graduate study of law at Harvard, Harvard rejected me because of my sex. I did not know that Harvard did not admit women and did not believe my professors and fellow students when they kidded me and said how Harvard would not let me in because I was a woman. You see, up until this time, I had so concentrated on race, civil rights, I was almost utterly unaware of the disabilities of sex.
Pauli graduated first in their class from Howard in 1944. Pauli invited friends and family to the graduation ceremony, including Eleanor Roosvelt. Although Eleanor could not attend, the First Lady sent Pauli flowers, and invited Pauli and their family to tea at the White House to celebrate.
Pauli was very busy after graduation. In 1945, they accepted the position of Deputy Attorney General for the state of California, the first African American to hold that position. They also continued to research and write, publishing their first book, States’ Laws on Race and Color in 1950. Funded by the Women’s Division of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, the book illustrates the social and economic costs of segregation, as well as the unconstitutionality of segregation laws. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP referred to Pauli’s work as “the Bible” of civil rights litigation, and it became part of the foundation for the NAACP’s arguments in that landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1956, Pauli published their family autobiography Proud Shoes, and also joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Pauli was the only African American at the firm and one of just four women. Here Pauli made two important connections. First was to Irene Barlow, the firm’s staff manager. In the late 1950s, Pauli and Irene began a relationship that would last until Irene’s death in 1973.
While at the firm, Pauli also crossed paths with a young summer associate named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg was so inspired by Pauli’s civil rights and women’s rights work that she listed Pauli’s name on the legal brief for the landmark 1971 US Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, which established that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination based on sex.
Pauli was a fierce advocate for women’s rights and had direct personal experience of the ways in which race and gender intersected to further disadvantage women of color.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the first Commission on the Status of Women. It was chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who asked Pauli to serve on the commission’s Committee on Political and Civil Rights. The committee was tasked with deciding how best to use the nation’s legal and political systems to combat gender discrimination. Once again, Pauli argued that litigation under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was the best course of action.
The Civil and Political Rights Committee of the President's Commission on the Status of Women came first. There I did, at the request of the Commission, I did a study, a re-examination of the Fourteenth Amendment with respect to state discriminatory laws and practices with regard to sex, and urged that the Fourteenth Amendment be used, using the civil rights precedents, to take advantage of the civil rights precedents, to make the Fourteenth Amendment clearly applicable to discrimination, state enforced or governmental discrimination because of sex. My strategy there was that up until that time, there had been almost no possibility of the ratification of an Equal Rights Amendment and that what we ought to do in the meantime, since there didn't seem to be an opportunity for a breakthrough … I was not per se opposed to an Equal Rights Amendment. I just felt that it was unrealistic to suppose that it would happen, that we should take advantage of the Fourteenth Amendment. In practical history, this is exactly what has happened.
In 1965, Pauli worked with the American Civil Liberties Union on the case of White v. Crook, which challenged Alabama’s exclusion of African-Americans and women from juries.
Pauli wrote a portion of the ACLU’s brief demonstrating the intersection of race and gender discrimination. They included an article entitled “Jane Crow and the Law,” which was written by Pauli and Mary Eastwood, an attorney that Pauli met during their work on the Committee on Political and Civil Rights. The article discussed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, comparing Jim Crow laws and discriminatory laws against women. Title VII created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission while also outlawing employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
One common parallel factor about race and sex discrimination are that they are biological. They are biologically permanent characteristics of the person. Age is not necessarily biologically permanent. You grow from a child to adult, an alien may become a citizen, a person who is in one profession may move over to another, but where you have a permanent characteristic, i.e., color, race or sex, it is on the basis of one's birth that one becomes a member of that caste, so to speak. It is completely imposed upon one and there is no way that one can escape except as the society is changed.
Pauli also channeled their interest in fighting race and gender discrimination into the creation of a new organization. When the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refused to to enforce Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination in employment, Murray collaborated with Betty Friedan and others to create the National Organization for Women in 1966. Friedan became NOW’s first President, but Pauli remained a consultant, even after they took a job with the EEOC. Pauli soon parted ways with NOW, however, as the organization’s agenda began to focus more on the needs of white, professional women, and less on the idea of economic justice for ALL women.
I am radical to the extent that I want to see the individual human being as free as is possible to fulfill that individual human being's potential, creative potential. I personally have two problems that is, two problems that are built in. I must always be concerned, not theoretically, but I must be involved with and necessarily concerned with racial liberation. But I must also personally be concerned with sexual liberation, because the two, as I often say, the two meet in me, the two meet in any individual who is both a woman and a member of an oppressed group or a minority group.
Pauli eventually moved into academia, teaching at Brandeis from 1968-1973. Pauli taught the university’s first courses in African American history and women’s studies.
In 1976, Pauli received a Master of Divinity degree from the General Theological Seminary. Their thesis was titled, “Black Theology and Feminist Theology: A Comparative Review.” Pauli was the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest and was among the first generation of Episcopal women priests.
In 1977, Pauli performed a service at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is the same church where Pauli’s Grandmother, an enslaved person, had been baptized. Pauli continued working in the ministry until their death from pancreatic cancer on July 1, 1985.
Murray wrote and published poems throughout their adult life. Perhaps their best-known poem is “Dark Testament,” which includes the lines that could be their epitaph:
I speak for my race and my people -
The human race and just people.
"Then let the dream linger on. Let it be the test of nations. Let it be the quest of all our days, the fevered pounding of our blood, the measure of our souls. That none shall rest in any land and none return to dreamless sleep, no heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled until the final man may stand in any place and thrust his shoulders to the sky, friend and brother to every other man."
Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; Amanda Hurwitz; and me, Deb Fowler.
Our UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities podcast theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
Thank you to the University of North Carolina and the Documenting the American South Project for providing access to Pauli Murray's February 13, 1976 audio oral history interview with Genna Rae McNeil, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Southern Oral History Program.
Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Murray, Pauli, and Patricia Bell-Scott. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Rosenberg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Books for younger readers:
Duling, Kaitlyn, and Arvilla Mae Morett. Pauli Murray. Greensboro, N.C.: Rourke Educational Media, 2023.
Linck, Deborah Nelson, and Angela Corbin. Pauli Murray: Shouting for the Rights of All People. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2022.
Stevens-Holsey, Rosita, and Terry Catasús Jennings. Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist. New York: Yellow Jacket, 2022.
Pauli Murray Center for History & Social Justice: https://www.paulimurraycenter.com/
“Pauli Murray as a LGBTQ+ Historical Figure” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/pauli-murray-lgbtq-historical-figure
“Pauli Murray; Survival with Dignity” at the American Writers Museum: https://exhibits.americanwritersmuseum.org/exhibits/pauli-murray/