Pauli Murray: A Life at The Intersection

In the rich tapestry of Black history, some figures stand out for their work that ripples out across many social justice movements. Pauli Murray, a legal scholar, feminist, author, and civil rights activist, stands out as one such figure. In an era when the struggle for justice spanned racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, Murray's efforts transcended singular categories, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive and thoughtful movement work.

In her early life, Murray achieved a series of firsts despite the challenges of navigating a world shaped by racial and gender discrimination. After graduating first in her class from Howard Law (where she was the only woman in her class), she applied to do post-graduate work at Harvard but she was rejected due to her gender. She went on to earn a master’s degree in law from the University of California, Berkeley, and then in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School. Despite the rejections she experienced as a Black woman, her legal thinking was ahead of its time. Murray’s research and writings were later used as the foundations for the arguments in both Reed v. Reed and Brown v. Board of Education. 

Murray was keenly aware of the need for an intersectional approach to social justice. In 1966, Murray became one of the founders of the National Organization of Women. However, she left the organization for good when it became completely centered on the needs and desires of professional white women while sidelining BIPOC members. Similarly, in 1963, Murray expressed her frustration with “the tendency to assign women to a secondary, ornamental or 'honoree' role instead of the partnership role in the civil rights movement which they have earned.” To that end, Murray wrote that Black “women, historically, have carried the dual burden of Jim Crow and Jane Crow.” Murray's understanding of intersectionality – the interconnected and cumulative nature of various forms of discrimination – anticipated a concept that would later become central to contemporary social justice movements.

After many years in academia, Murray found a new mission and a new first by becoming the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977. In 1978, Murray delivered the Mother’s Day sermon at St. Philip’s, the Episcopal Church in Durham N.C. that her mother and maternal grandparents attended. Murray devoted the rest of her life to ministry in Washington D.C. until she died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer.

Despite a lifetime of meaningful contributions, Murray's legacy was largely overlooked for many years. Recently, however, there has been a renewed appreciation for her groundbreaking work. Several biographical books have been written about Murray, including Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray which inspired the 2021 documentary My Name is Pauli Murray. Murray, a prolific writer in her own right, wrote two autobiographies Proud Shoes and Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, and a collection of poetry called Dark Testament in addition to multiple volumes of legal research. 

 A note on gender pronouns – I have chosen to use she/her pronouns in this piece following the way that Pauli Murray self-identified at the time. There is a significant body of scholarship that suggests Murray may have been transgender so some scholars may use they/them or even he/him pronouns.