Pauli Murray: A One-Woman Civil Rights Movement

Pauli Murray, 1978. Pauli Murray Papers. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray, 1978. Pauli Murray Papers. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Deborah Blagg

Mention the United States civil rights leaders, and most Americans think of mid-20th-centruy icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. But in a lecture sponsored by the Schlesinger Library and held in February at the Radcliffe Institute, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a Yale University historian and 20002001 Radcliffe fellow, offered a vivid account of an activist whose struggle for racial and gender equality took place many years before Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights marches on Washington. “We [historians] write about the civil rights movement as the time when white people saw it on television in their living rooms,” Gilmore said in a talk titled, “Guts, Greyhounds, and Gandhi: Pauli Murray’s Civil Rights Movement, 1935–1973.” “By that time, many people had been in the civil rights movement all their lives.”

The Pauli Murray in Gilmore’s lecture title is a central character in the historian’s new book, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919–1950 (Norton 2008), which sheds light on the unsung activists—including labor figures, Communists, anti-Fascists, artists, poets, intellectuals, and picketers—who led the fight against segregation and Jim Crow laws in the American South. Murray, whose forebears included both slaves and prominent white North Carolinians, worked throughout her life to widen opportunities for African Americans and women.

Murray grew up in Durham, North Carolina, a fast-growing town in the early part of the 20th century, with a large black middle class. “Segregation was ubiquitous,” Gilmore said, “and Murray hated Jim Crow as much for its repression of the soul as for its repression of the body.” To get away from the segregated south, she attended Hunter College in New York and graduated with a degree in English in 1933.

In 1938, she applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina and was denied entry because of her race, even though her white great-great-grandfather had been a trustee of the university. “From that moment on,” Gilmore said, “Pauli Murray was a one-woman civil rights movement.” 

Murray was never admitted to the University of North Carolina, but her career is a study in idealism and determination. Among other distinctions, she graduated from Howard University Law School at the top of her class; enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt as a lifelong friend and political ally; studied and put to use the nonviolent resistance techniques of Mahatma Gandhi; organized and led desegregation sit-ins in Washington, DC; became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Yale Law School; and, at age 66, became the first African American women in the United States to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. 

Murray had a lasting impact on American feminism, beginning with an article she coauthored with Mary Eastwood in 1965, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” in George Washington Law Review. The authors wrote that “the most serious discrimination against both women and Negroes today” took place in the area of employment. Two years later, Murray was instrumental, along with Betty Friedan and others, in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Gilmore conducted extensive research for Defying Dixie at the Schlesinger Library, drawing heavily on Murray’s papers, one the library’s most popular collections. “Pauli Murray left her papers to this place because she thought the Schlesinger would take the best care of them,” said Gilmore, who couldn’t resist noting an irony: Murray once applied to the master’s program in law at Harvard but was informed, “You are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.”

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