Catching Up to Pauli Murray

Song in a Weary Throat book cover
The New York Review of Books
October 25, 2018
By Drew Gilpin Faust

Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage
by Pauli Murray, with an introduction by Patricia Bell-Scott

Liveright, 587 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Pauli Murray’s autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, first appeared in 1987, two years after her death. A young law professor, Pat Williams—today better known as the distinguished legal scholar, Nation columnist, and MacArthur “genius award” winner Patricia Williams—reviewed it respectfully for The New York Times. Yet she found Murray’s hopefulness in the face of her narrative of racism and injustice “to contain a certain pathos.” “The militance of my generational perspective,” Williams wrote, ran “counter to the persistent gentlewomanliness” of Murray’s tone and message. Murray’s day seemed to have passed. In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley appeared awestruck, yet puzzled by the story of a life so accomplished yet so little known. To his apparent surprise, he came to the “final pages utterly convinced that Murray was one of the great Americans of her time.” Yet neither his praise nor the availability of this prize-winning narrative of her life succeeded in making Murray into a household name.1

Now, more than thirty years later, Liveright has reissued what it calls a “rediscovered memoir” for a very different time. Since 1987, changing realities—the election of a black president and the major-party presidential candidacy of a woman, the shocking violence of Ferguson, Charleston, and Charlottesville, the tragic deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, the emerging struggle over transgender rights from gender-neutral bathrooms to the military—have challenged us to look anew at the issues of race, gender, and sexuality that defined Pauli Murray’s life. Since 1985, a steady scholarly interest in her has generated a growing body of research in the voluminous collection of her papers that she bequeathed to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. As a result, we not only must consider her life in a new generational perspective, we also know a great deal more about that life itself; we can now see the autobiography’s strategic silences and omissions.

Murray has come to seem not the dated gentlewoman of Patricia Williams’s review but rather a prophetic voice. Her words and actions on behalf of African-Americans and women propelled two of the most significant social movements of the twentieth century, at the same time that her questions about her gender identity anticipated the struggle for transgender rights that has emerged in the twenty-first. It is not so much that Murray has been “rediscovered,” but that she has come to be recognized in ways that make both her experience and her narrative about it take on new meaning and importance as the life of someone who made history by anticipating its directions, shaping its outcomes, and writing its stories.

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a nurse, both, in Murray’s words, “products of several generations of a generous intermixture of African, European, and Native American stocks.” Although her parents’ “success had seemed assured” even in the worsening racial climate of the early twentieth century, the marriage was a difficult one, ended by her mother’s death at age thirty-five while pregnant with her seventh child. Pauli was only four. Three years later, her father was committed to a mental institution where he spent the remainder of his life, leaving his daughter with an enduring “dread of hereditary insanity.”

Murray was adopted by a formidable aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, a schoolteacher in Durham, North Carolina, whose husband had divorced her when she refused to follow him in passing into white society. Together with another schoolteacher aunt, Sallie Fitzgerald Small, Dame instilled in Murray pride in family, high standards and high expectations, and a fervent belief in the importance of education. In spite of very limited financial means and the obstacles posed by her race and gender, Murray’s powerful intelligence, her ingenuity, and her ambition drove her to pursue a remarkable range of educational opportunities. Over the course of her life, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, completed law school at Howard, where she was the only woman and the highest-ranked student in her class, received graduate law degrees—an LLM from Berkeley and a JSD from Yale—and, in her sixties, completed studies for a Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. She also faced crushing rejections—from the graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1938 because she was black and in 1942 from Harvard Law School, which informed her that admission was not open to women.

Murray proclaimed that her guiding principle in the face of impediments placed in her way was always “Don’t get mad, get smart.” In fact, she often was angered by the injustices that confronted her, but these experiences of discrimination drove her toward knowledge, fact, argument, and creative expression, the intellectual work that she regarded as her true calling and a fundamental instrument of social change. She excelled at what she called “confrontation by typewriter.” Yet in a poem entitled “Conflict,” Murray wrote of the “poet and warrior/who grapple in my brain.”2 Circumstances often required more than words, and she must be remembered—and credited—as a very early activist in what has come to be known as the civil rights movement. Murray was jailed in Virginia for challenging segregated bus seating in 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger precipitated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While she was a student at Howard Law School, Murray organized successful lunch counter sit-ins in Washington, D.C., in 1943 and 1944, seventeen years before the legendary Greensboro protests of 1960.

An early chapter in her autobiography is called “Learning About Race,” but those difficult lessons extended across her entire life. Four generations of family portraits staring down from her grandmother’s walls encouraged Murray’s pride in her heritage. This sense of a “right of birth” served, in her words, as “a countervailing force against the view that colored people were inferior.” But the ancestry Murray’s family celebrated was both black and white, creating “a confusing world” in which she was “both related to white people and alienated from them.” Her beloved grandparents’ marriage itself embodied these contradictions, for her grandfather recounted tales of fighting for freedom as a Union soldier, while her grandmother proudly invoked the elite North Carolina lineage of her white slave-owning forebears.

These complexities, Murray explained, prevented her from “developing a blanket hatred of all white people,” but the tightening vise of Jim Crow built up “silent resentment” and posed a constant challenge to her own self-esteem: “I was not entirely free from the prevalent idea that I must prove myself worthy of the rights that white individuals took for granted.” Reports of lynchings and other racial violence were regular shocks, but the pervasive pressure of countless daily degradations created the systematic hold of segregation.

Murray and her family sought to avoid circumstances that challenged their “dignity and pride.” Pauli walked everywhere to stay off Jim Crow streetcars; she declined to go to the movies and sit in the “peanut gallery.” But racism took its toll:

Each of us had to deal with it as best we could. Some were ultimately destroyed, some led crippled lives, some endured, and some fled the South, as I did later. Some took comfort in the occasional escape by “passing,” and of those who could do so, some moved back and forth between the two worlds with comparative ease.

Color intensified the confusions and contradictions of Murray’s multiracial identity. At home, she observed, she was too dark; at school as a young child, too white. “I was one of three ‘light-skinned’ pupils in a class of darker hues, a minority within a minority.” To feel a minority within a minority would become a defining feature of her life.

As she grew older, the oppressive power of segregation’s repetitive humiliations created in Murray what she described as “a lurking fear.” But she also found herself increasingly unable to endure its indignities. By the 1930s, the forces of economic depression and the rise of fascism abroad were “breeding a new militancy in younger Negroes like me,” Murray noted, and strengthening hopes and demands for change. In these circumstances, the rejection of her application to the University of North Carolina for graduate study in sociology seemed to her intolerable. “We of the younger generation,” she wrote to UNC president Frank Graham, “cannot compromise with our ideals of human equality.” Murray unsuccessfully appealed to the NAACP to take her case as part of the systematic attack it was beginning to mount on the doctrine of “separate but equal.” But her application had garnered so much public attention that she now found herself connected to a burgeoning movement. Her refusal to accept the injustice of her rejection by UNC had made her “part of a tradition of continuous struggle.” It was “exhilarating.” To speak out at last brought “the liberation of my mind from years of enslavement.”

The act of protest that led to her jailing in Virginia was not one Murray had planned in advance. She was riding a bus home to Durham for Easter when the driver demanded that she and the friend accompanying her sit in broken seats in the colored section rather than in one of the many seats available toward the front. She objected. Murray had been reading about Gandhi and nonviolence and endeavored to adhere to those principles as she resisted unequal treatment and was taken to jail. The case attracted considerable attention, including from the highest levels of the NAACP.

Murray remained uncertain whether writing or law would enable her to fight Jim Crow more effectively. Worries about earning a living, however, led her to put aside thoughts of a writing program at the University of Iowa, and in 1941 she entered Howard Law School. She excelled as she acquired the legal tools for combating segregation. But in Howard’s overwhelmingly male environment, she was faced with another corrosive form of discrimination. It was at Howard, she wrote, “where I first became conscious of the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias, which I quickly labeled Jane Crow.” Gender inequity compounded racial injustice, deepening Murray’s sense of isolation and marginalization.

During her years in law school, Murray grew convinced that a more direct approach should replace the NAACP strategy of challenging segregation within the separate but equal terms established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Separate, she believed, was inherently and necessarily unequal. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, she argued to her skeptical Howard classmates, could be used to end both racial and gender discrimination. Murray’s senior seminar paper made the case for the direct assault on segregation that a decade later resulted in the triumph of Brown v. Board of Education. Her paper and its pathbreaking arguments served as a resource for Thurgood Marshall and his legal team as they prepared their historic case.

In the years following her graduation from Howard, Murray pursued a range of intellectual and activist projects, repeatedly finding herself facing hurdles because of her race and gender. Rejected by Harvard, she acquired her master’s degree at Berkeley, served briefly as deputy attorney general of California, worked as a clerk for a male lawyer, struggled to run her own practice, then through “amazing good fortune” was hired as an associate attorney at the prestigious white shoe firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where she worked until she departed in 1960 to join the faculty of the Ghana Law School. Murray’s life was filled with juxtapositions of highs and lows, with struggles to make ends meet together with participation in some of the most influential circles of American life and friendships with such figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and James Baldwin.

During these years, Murray was also producing a wide range of important intellectual work, including an encyclopedic compilation, States’ Laws on Race and Color, a stream of poetry that would ultimately be collected in a volume called Dark Testament, a textbook of Ghanaian law, and a remarkable family history, Proud Shoes. It is difficult today to believe that Proud Shoes was published in 1956. Murray approached the story of her family as an inquiry into the history of race in America. Based on extensive archival research, the book reflects a complexity of understanding of slavery, Reconstruction, and the era of Jim Crow that was absent from almost all American historical writing at the time. Her portrayal of the shifting definitions and uses of race through American history and of the unwavering commitment of African-Americans like her forebears to the struggle for freedom anticipates defining themes of mainstream historiography of the years that followed.

Increasingly, however, Murray was focusing her attention on women’s rights, which would become a central preoccupation during her years of doctoral study at Yale. Her appointment to the Commission on the Status of Women created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 brought her into an active feminist network. The deliberations motivated her to build on her earlier legal research to produce a memorandum arguing for the applicability of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to sex as well as race discrimination. As a victim of both race and sex bias, Murray felt well equipped to make the case for their inseparability.

When Representative Howard Smith of Virginia offered his “quixotic” amendment adding the word “sex” as a prohibited ground for discrimination in Title VII of the omnibus Civil Rights Bill of 1964, Murray produced a powerful supporting memorandum embodying her insights about the “historical interrelatedness of the movements for civil rights and women’s rights and the tragic consequences in United States history of ignoring the interrelatedness of all human rights.” The provision remained as the bill became law, but Murray and others soon recognized that without organized pressure, enforcement efforts would be weak.

Murray continued her scholarly work to strengthen her legal case, publishing what became a much cited article on Title VII and Jane Crow in the George Washington Law Review in December 1965 and writing briefs with the ACLU. A conversation with Betty Friedan about their shared disappointment in the initial impact of Title VII moved them in June 1966 to found the National Organization for Women, (NOW). It was intended, in Murray’s words, to be “an independent national civil rights organization for women comparable to the NAACP.”

But what Murray soon saw as NOW’s too-exclusive focus on gender and its neglect of black women rapidly distanced her from the organization she had helped create. At the same time, she would find that her insistence on a broadly inclusive feminism would alienate her from many minority feminists as the Black Power movement gained strength.

Murray’s legal arguments about the applicability of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to women’s rights would find its most effective champion in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In Reed v. Reed (1971), Ginsburg, then a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully argued that the equal protection clause prohibited differential treatment based on sex. Ginsburg explicitly acknowledged Murray’s influence by naming her as a coauthor of her appellate brief.

In spite of a lifetime of achievements and the doctorate she received from Yale in 1965, Murray did not succeed in securing a law school teaching post. After a year as vice-president of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, she joined the American Studies faculty at Brandeis. Her five years there represented the longest period she ever remained in a job. But motivated in part by her anger at the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in her beloved Episcopal Church, she entered General Theological Seminary at the age of sixty-three, once again determined not just to get mad but to get smart. In 1977 she became the first black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Murray’s deepening engagement with the church and with her spirituality was also driven by a devastating personal loss. She writes in Song in a Weary Throat of her intense bond with Irene (Renee) Barlow, whom she met when Barlow was the highly competent office manager at Paul Weiss Rifkind. “The chemistry of our friendship,” she explained, “produced sparks of sheer joy.” Both women were feminists, both devout Episcopalians. Murray described Barlow as her “closest friend.” Barlow’s death from cancer in 1973 “changed my life,” Murray wrote. “I felt an urgency to complete my mission on earth.”

Murray’s autobiography does not go beyond describing a devoted friendship with Barlow to acknowledge the full picture of their relationship or to recount the lifelong emotional turmoil about gender boundaries that shaped it. Song in a Weary Throat does not disclose how the marginalization Murray felt as a result of being female and black was intensified by what she privately described as her “in between,” “queer” gender identity. Murray’s personal papers in the Schlesinger Library have revealed to scholars a critical dimension of her life that she, even as a writer, poet, and memoirist, never openly discussed. From an early age, when she preferred to dress in boys’ clothing and play boys’ games, she felt she was a man trapped in a female body.

The historian Rosalind Rosenberg’s recent biography, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (2017), details the private anguish disclosed in the Murray archive. For decades, Murray implored doctors to prescribe testosterone and begged to be X-rayed in hopes of identifying hidden male organs that would constitute a physical basis for her gender confusion. At times, her distress brought her to emotional breakdown, and she spent time in psychiatric hospitals. She did not believe she was a lesbian; she was not attracted to women who desired women. She was instead “a girl who should have been a boy.”

Although only the scarcest hints of her turmoil are mentioned in her published writings, new research casts fresh light on the nature and meaning of the struggle that was her life. She felt herself a hybrid—black and white, male and female—centrally engaged in the powerful identity-based social movements of her time, yet distanced from them by the complexity and secrecy of her understanding of herself. She denounced the sexism of the mainstream civil rights movement: not one woman was included as a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, she noted with dismay. She broke with Betty Friedan and NOW over their failure to acknowledge that the category “woman” was not exclusively white. Fearing publicly to admit or discuss her struggles with gender identity, she nevertheless pursued in her own private life a path that challenged the binary nature of gender and pointed the way toward both the medical and social response to gender “in-betweenness” that serves as a foundation for today’s movement for transgender rights.

Even though Murray failed to reveal one critical source of the marginalization and oppression she experienced, her life, her work, and her writings can serve as a model for a new understanding of the pursuit of social justice. “Intersectionality,” a term first used by the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, has become a widely accepted framework for capturing the complex ways in which gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of social hierarchy and discrimination reinforce one another in defining status and power. Murray lived, fought, and chronicled this reality.

In the fall of 2017, Yale University opened an undergraduate residential college named in Murray’s honor. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated her childhood home in Durham a National Treasure. The Episcopal Church has voted her one of its select roster of “Holy Women, Holy Men” and given her a permanent place on its calendar of saints. It is past time for Pauli Murray to become a household name.

  1. Pat Williams, “The Struggle to Belong,” The New York Times, March 29, 1987; Jonathan Yardley, “Faith and True Grit: The Life of Pauli Murray,” The Washington Post, April 5, 1987. 

  2. Murray, Dark Testament and Other Poems (Liveright, 2018), p. 65. 

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