“If one could characterize in a single phrase the contribution of Black women to America, I think it would be ‘survival with dignity against incredible odds.’ The dramatic exploits of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth . . . are well known examples of this will to survive, but they are the great peaks rising from a mountainous terrain of less visible heroines in everyday life.”—Pauli Murray, “Black Women—A Heroic Tradition and a Challenge” (1977)
Pauli Murray earned a number of titles throughout her life: attorney, activist, poet, professor, priest, feminist, advisor, friend, and survivor. In a career that spanned most of the 20th century, Murray lent her voice to a wide array of causes and organizations as she tackled the overlapping inequities of race, gender, and class in American life. Perhaps more than any individual before her, Murray helped generations of activists to theorize and understand the intersections between these different dimensions of identity. The extensive Pauli Murray Papers at the Schlesinger Library offer an incredibly rich perspective on her life’s work and particularly her efforts to wield the law as an instrument of social change.
When Murray enrolled at Howard University School of Law in 1941, she joined a small but determined cadre of black women who would enter the legal profession amidst the social and political upheavals of World War II and the war’s aftermath. Drawing inspiration from earlier pioneers like Edith Spurlock Sampson this cohort of women lawyers broke down barriers, challenged racial and gender prejudices, and carved out a critical space at the heart of the resurgent battle against Jim Crow segregation.
Pauli Murray’s labors in law, and those of other black women attorneys and litigants in the 1940s and 1950s, are the central subject of my current project: "No Crystal Stair: Black Women & Civil Rights Law in Postwar America." Stories like hers reveal the contours of a largely overlooked period of unique and prominent contributions by black women to the struggle for civil rights in the nation’s courts.
Murray arrived at law school on the heels of an extended campaign to save the life of Odell Waller, a young Virginia sharecropper who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury composed of poll-tax paying planters after Waller killed a white farmer in a heated altercation. For a year, Murray tirelessly organized on behalf of the legal wing of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union while they handled Waller’s appeals. She later toured the country with Waller’s mother to raise awareness and funds for his case in the Spring of 1941. Though her efforts failed to prevent Waller’s execution, the experience convinced her to pursue her legal education. When she graduated at the top of her law school class in 1944, Murray wrote to her former colleagues calling her success a “tribute to . . . Odell” and included a brief and somber note: “A sharecropper lost, a lawyer gained.”
Even while she was still a student, Murray channeled her burgeoning legal talents into an assortment of confrontations with Jim Crow. She served as a legal adviser to Howard undergraduates who staged sit-ins at local restaurants and who challenged segregated seating on interstate buses. One of her final pieces of coursework would be an extended seminar paper assessing the legal arguments that could be used to overturn the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Simultaneously, Murray campaigned against gender-based forms of exclusion in legal education. She repeatedly protested the isolation and condescension that she felt as the only woman in her law school class, and upon graduation she waged an extended, albeit unsuccessful, drive to force Harvard Law School to end its ban on women students so that she could pursue graduate study in Cambridge. Twenty years later, Murray spoke on the Harvard campus, joking that the experience had given her a “Bachelor of Feminism” degree. The remarkable breadth of Murray’s writings and correspondence in the Schlesinger collection reveal her steady subsequent efforts to mentor and advocate for women students while continually fighting back against the exclusion and lack of recognition that women faced in various spheres of American society.
Murray’s papers document nearly six decades of activism and represent one of the most complete and accessible personal archives of a black woman lawyer anywhere in the country. They are an incredible resource for historians of the civil rights movement and women’s legal history. The collection offers an invaluable window into the thinking, daily practice, and social and professional networks that allowed Murray and the emerging group of women like her—each of them among the “heroines of everyday life” that Murray alluded to in the passage above—to serve as architects of sociopolitical change and to spur forward the end of “separate but equal” jurisprudence.
Jeffrey D. Gonda, a 2014–2015 Schlesinger Library Research Support Grant recipient, is an Assistant Professor of American History in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University and a 2016–2017 Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of Unjust Deeds: The Restrictive Covenant Cases and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (UNC Press, 2015).