One woman’s freedom movement
The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray spent a lifetime challenging not only racial segregation, but systems of discrimination in all of their forms. Many students of American and African American literature and history know her as the author of acclaimed books like her fine memoir Proud Shoes — which told the extraordinary story of her childhood in her grandparents’ North Carolina home and their family legacy of free Blacks, slaves, and slave owners — and her prize-winning poetry collection Dark Testament. But her diverse list of honors went far beyond being a celebrated writer. Pauli Murray was a civil rights lawyer and the first African American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School. She was a college vice president and a professor in universities in the United States and Africa. Pauli was a sit-inner before the 1960 sit-in movement of my generation. She also was a founding member of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and a member of the Equality Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Her protest against segregated transportation in Washington, D.C. preceded Mrs. Rosa Parks’s famous actions in Montgomery by many years. In her sixties she answered a call to the priesthood and enrolled in seminary. In 1977 she became the first African American woman to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. The centennial celebration of Pauli Murray’s birth began in November 2010, and all year long many of us fortunate enough to know her and new admirers have remembered her wonderful legacy and some gathered at a number of ceremonies to celebrate her extraordinary life.
I met and got to know Pauli Murray at Yale Law School in the early 1960s. By the time she arrived at Yale, she had already published Proud Shoes and her landmark book States’ Laws on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshall called a Bible for civil rights lawyers. She had earned her undergraduate degree with honors from Hunter College and graduate degrees in law from Howard University and the University of California at Berkeley — after being turned away from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s graduate school because of her race, and Harvard Law School because of her sex. Her unsuccessful struggle to be admitted to UNC, where her White great-great-grandfather had been a trustee, received national publicity and the support of the NAACP. At Yale, she and I and fellow Black women students like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Inez Smith Reid experienced exclusion from the Law School dormitories and even some courses held at Mory’s club which excluded women. We either had to stay in town or in the one segregated women’s graduate dorm. Women were not admitted to Yale College at all. But we had each other and a handful of other Black women students in other Yale Graduate School departments. Pauli challenged and overcame similar discrimination at every turn throughout her life. She had her own apartment in the city with open doors for counsel and meals. She mentored me.
How proud Pauli would be to see the strides our nation has continued to make in fighting racism, sexism, and the other obstacles she stood against. But how disappointed she would be to see many areas where we are going backwards — including segregation in education and the huge achievement gap which threatens the futures of millions of poor children of color. She would not be going about business as so many of us are today when the foundation of our community’s house is crumbling. Legal exclusion like Pauli experienced at UNC and Harvard Law School may be gone, but since the late 1980s de facto racial segregation has been experiencing a steady resurgence. Today nearly threequarters of Black children attend predominantly minority schools. This was not Pauli’s vision for their future.
In a 1975 article Pauli wrote for the newsletter of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus on her vision for the Church’s future over the next one hundred years, she described herself this way: “Woman, seminarian, poet, lawyer, person of color, senior citizen, Christian.” Pauli fought throughout her life for a world where she and everyone else would have the freedom to embrace their full identities and be treated equally as individuals without discrimination or exclusion. A scholar who has written about her life has called her a “one-woman civil rights movement.” Pauli Murray set a tremendous example for us to celebrate and follow. I’m so grateful I was blessed to call her friend and role model.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund.