1910 - 1985

Anna Pauline Murray was born in Baltimore on November, 20, 1910. Orphaned at a young age, she went to live with her grandparents and teacher and namesake Aunt Pauline in Durham, N.C. Aunt Pauline helped spur on Murray’s love of education by bringing her to her classroom every day when she was a toddler. By the end of that first school year, Murray knew how to read and was answering Aunt Pauline’s questions. Murray graduated from high school with distinction and moved to New York City to attend college. She graduated from the all-women’s Hunter College with a degree in English literature in 1933. Murray began to grapple with her gender identity during this time and changed her name to the gender-neutral Pauli and asked for hormone therapy. That request was denied. Murray never identified as a lesbian per se; due to the fact that it was criminalized at the time instead, they described themself as having an "inverted sex instinct" – a common euphemism at the time to describe a woman who behaved like a man attracted to women. Murray’s first jobs out of college were for the Works Progress Administration and New York City Remedial Reading Program. They also started writing and never stopped throughout their life, with some of their work being published in magazines. Murray also worked at the women-only government sponsored Camp Tera “She-She-She” conservation camp during the Great Depression. This is where Murray met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her first girlfriend, Peg Holmes- a white counselor. Murray and Roosevelt later struck up a life-long friendship that began during Murray’s campaign to attend graduate school at the all-white University of North Carolina. Due to their shared interest in social activism, Murray and Roosevelt exchanged countless letters with each other over the years. Denied entrance, Murray went to the historically Black college Howard University in Washington D.C. to obtain their law degree. Just prior to attending Howard, they were arrested and imprisoned for days in 1940 for attempting to end segregation on public transportation by refusing to sit at the back of a Virginia bus. In 1942 she co-founded the non-violent civil disobedience organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) alongside Bayard Rustin and others. While at Howard, they were the only student who was classified as female and professors would not call on them during class due to that distinction. Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe this form of discrimination. After graduating from Howard at the top of their law school class that came with a Rosenwald Fellowship Murray thought, like other Howard University graduates who got that fellowship, they would continue their studies at Harvard University. They were rejected because of their gender. Murray decided to go to the University of California Berkeley Law School to get their Master of Laws degree with a focus on equal rights for women. Upon graduation, they were chosen as California’s first Black woman Deputy Attorney General. In 1951 she published States’ Laws on Race and Color, which was described by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the Bible for Civil Rights lawyers. In 1956 Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, a biography of her grandparents. Shortly after, Murray got a job at a New York City law firm and that is where they met their longtime romantic partner office manager Irene Barlow. Wanting to explore their African roots, Murray moved to Ghana in 1960 to teach law but was turned off by the politics of the country and quickly moved back to the U.S. In the 1960’s, President John Kennedy appointed Murray to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights. Murray also co-founded the National Organization for Women but fell away from the organization when they did not properly address Black and working-class women’s concerns. Murray also served on the American Civil Liberties Union board and co-wrote a brief using their Jane Crow argument that struck down the all-white, all-male jury system in Alabama. Decades before Ruth Bader Ginsburg would serve on the Supreme Court, she used Murray’s brief to craft her winning argument in the 1971 Reed v. Reed Supreme Court case which was the first time the Equal Protection Clause would be used in a sex discrimination case. The obstacles Murray encountered on the way to their own success as an activist made them openly critical of the marginalized role Black women were forced to play in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. Despite all of the obstacles Murray faced, they inspired countless notable people including Children’s Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman, D.C. Delegate to the House of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton and countless others. In 1977, Murray became the first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest and served in several churches before their retirement in 1984. They died of pancreatic cancer on July 1, 1985 at age 74. Their autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, was published posthumously in 1987. One important omission was any reference to Murray’s sexual orientation and gender identity and any romantic partners. Since then, many books have been written about Murray and their life was made into a 2021 documentary—My Name is Pauli Murray—by the same producing team that did the 2018 RBG documentary.

Demography

Gender Female

Sexual Orientation Queer

Gender Identity Genderqueer/Non-Binary

Ethnicity African American Black Caucasian/White Native/Indigenous

Faith Construct Protestant

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) Second-wave Feminism (1960-1990)

Field(s) of Contribution

Author

Law

Poet

Religion

Social Justice

Commemorations & Honors

Holy Women, Holy Men Episcopal Church General Convention Honor (2012)

Pauli Murray Childhood Home in Durham, North Carolina Named National Trust for Historic Preservation National Treasure (2015)

Pauli Murray College Designated at Yale University (2016)

Pauli Murray Family Home Designated a National Historic Landmark by US Department of the Interior (2016)

National Women's History Honoree (2018)

Episcopal Church Calendar of Saints Member (2018)

Resources

Related Videos

Author Rosalind Rosenberg on the Life and Legacy of Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray and The True Story of Courageous Women

My Name is Pauli Murray: New Film on Black Queer Legal Pioneer Who Inspired RBG…

Sundance Doc Honors Civil Rights Pioneer Pauli Murray

Time Magazine: RBG Wanted People To Know More About One Of Her Legal Heroes

Pauli Murray: The Woman Who History Forgot

Authorship

Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell