This Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking frequently about Pauli Murray, a radical black woman who failed more than she succeeded, yet still blazed a formidable trail.
Her life’s work foreshadowed the accomplishments of civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights in the twentieth century and the questions she asked of all Americans are still relevant today. Murray is just the kind of person who should be celebrated during Women’s History Month. A woman who reminds us to explore the ways that race, gender identity, and sexuality intersect, in order to tell a better story about the history of women in America.
Pauli Murray lived her life at the intersections; she coined the term “Jane Crow” in the 1940s as a way of describing her life lived under the shadow of race and gender oppression. A daughter of Durham, North Carolina, Pauli Murray was an activist who continuously contested the limits placed on her because of her race and gender. After first fleeing the bracing grip of segregation and attending Hunter College in New York, she was drawn back her home state by the possibility of applying to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At the time, UNC maintained an all-white, all-male student body, but was home to scholars interested in questions of race in the South. Murray wondered how students could study race in an all-white setting, and decided that she should apply to the graduate program in sociology. Murray was a radical spirit in a changing time.
Although she was not the first black student to fight for admittance to the graduate program at UNC, Murray resolved on her own to continue the challenge in 1938. After she applied to the program on her own, she alerted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) about her cause, but they waivered, and in the end, did not support her efforts for fear that she was not the perfect litigant. Although the NAACP did not explain why they refused to take up her case, Murray’s short time in a Communist-affiliated organization, her intimate relationships with women, and her occasional self-presentation as a young man, particularly when she traveled, may have rendered her less than respectable by NAACP standards. Despite their doubts, Murray alone presented formidable opposition to white supremacy and black reluctance.
Arguing, “one person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement,” she advocated in support of her own candidacy, waging a one-woman letter-writing campaign by sending letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, UNC president, Frank Porter Graham, and James Shepard, president of the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University).By forwarding her challenging letters to local newspapers and the UNC student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, she sparked a debate about school integration decades before Brown v. Board of Education. Although she was not admitted, her challenge would plant the seeds for successful challenges in the coming generation.
Murray was a tireless advocate for the movement, and her work reverberated with the fights that the modern civil rights movement and contemporary struggles for justice are still battling today. While traveling south to Durham for an Easter visit with family with her partner Adelene McBean in the spring of 1940, Murray and McBean were arrested in Petersburg, Virginia for resisting the nonsensical rules of racial segregation on a Greyhound bus. Following the Gandhian principles that would become the hallmark of the Freedom Rides more than twenty years later, the two refused to pay fines and instead served out thirty-day sentences in the Petersburg City Jail.
In a manner that echoes the fight against the racialized application of “Stand Your Ground” laws today, Murray organized in support of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper who faced the death penalty in Virginia after killing his white landlord in self defense. Murray’s work for the Waller case drew her further into the public eye as an advocate for the movement, and convinced her that she needed to study law in order to do the work she was called to do. On the strength of her activism and a letter of recommendation from Thurgood Marshall himself, Murray embarked on a legal career at Howard University.
Murray found that it would be on the campus of Howard University in the 1940s where the gender biases of black male faculty and classmates would put the politics Jane Crow in stark relief. Mocked and excluded by folks at Howard Law, Murray set out to counter their “crude” sexism by being at the top of her class and continuing her race advocacy. In a movement that would closely mirror the practices of the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, Murray helped lead a group of mostly undergraduate women in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the nation’s capital, successfully desegregating at least one establishment.
It would be this battle on two fronts against Jane Crow that would lead Murray to be a co-founder for the National Organization for Women, an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, spearheading the ground-breaking inclusion of sex protection under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and becoming one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest.
The kind of women’s history we pass down when we center an advocate like Pauli Murray is a history that forces us to remember the lessons gleaned from this long fight for equality. When we remember Murray, we have to honor the ways that all our struggles are intertwined.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley