Pauli Murray was a lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an ordained Episcopal priest. She was also a deputy attorney general, a professor, and a poet. She reinvented herself and her career numerous times and, in the process, accomplished many important firsts, all while advocating on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights.
Born in 1910 in Baltimore, she grew up with her grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City with an English degree.
In 1940, she was arrested in Virginia when she and a friend sat in the whites-only section of a bus. This led her to develop an interest in becoming a civil rights lawyer. She applied to the University of North Carolina for law school, but was denied admission because of her race. She waged a public campaign against the school’s denial of her admission, publishing the correspondence between herself and the school. In the process, she developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, as she had written the president for help in her quest to be admitted to UNC Law. She ended up going to Howard Law School and was the only woman in her class. While at Howard, she experienced gender discrimination, and coined the phrase “Jane Crow,” to refer to policies that disadvantaged African American women.
Despite graduating first in her class at Howard Law, she was denied a post-JD fellowship at Harvard Law School, which had typically been awarded to the top graduating Howard law student. She even had a letter of support from President Roosevelt, and yet was still denied the Harvard fellowship because she was a woman. In response to Harvard’s denial, she wrote “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?” So, instead she went to UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law for her LLM degree, where she wrote and published a law review article entitled “The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment.” She later became the first African American to graduate from Yale Law School with an S.J.D. degree.
She took and passed the California bar exam and became the first African American deputy attorney general in California. Thus began her legal career advocating for women’s rights and civil rights. In 1950, she published a book entitled “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which surveyed each state’s segregation laws and drew on psychological and sociological evidence to condemn such laws. Thurgood Marshall referred to it as “the bible of the civil rights movement,” and of course, he used similar evidence in his legal challenges to segregation. She co-authored the Reed v. Reed brief with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1971, challenging an Idaho law that stipulated a preference for men over women when appointing administrators of estates. JFK appointed her to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, and she was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women.
Pauli entered academia in 1967, first serving as a vice president at Benedict College, and then teaching African American Studies and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, where she received tenure as a full professor.
She left the legal profession and Brandeis in 1973 to go to seminary, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1977. The New Yorker did a wonderful biography of her in 2017. The article ended with this:
“It is easy to wonder, in the context of the rest of Murray’s life, if she joined the priesthood chiefly because she was told she couldn’t. There was a very fine line in her between ambition and self-sabotage; highly motivated by barriers, she often struggled most after toppling them. It’s impossible to know what goals she might have formed for herself in the absence of so many impediments, or what else she might have achieved.
“Murray herself felt she didn’t accomplish all that she might have in a more egalitarian society. ‘If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement,’ she wrote in 1970, ‘her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’’ But, characteristically, she broke that low and tragic barrier, too, making her own life harder so that, eventually, other people’s lives would be easier. Perhaps, in the end, she was drawn to the Church simply because of the claim made in Galatians, the one denied by it and by every other community she ever found, the one she spent her whole life trying to affirm: that, for purposes of human worth, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.’”
She died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer.
Seriously–read this article about her from the New Yorker Magazine: The Many Lives of Pauli Murray. It’s a great article about a great woman!