Black Women Whose Names Should Be Household Words: An Ongoing Series


Debbie says:

When I wrote about Lucy Parsons, I mentioned Pauli Murray in passing. Her name came up again in conversation recently, making me want to write more about her here. It is really hard to do justice to Murray’s legacy. Murray was a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, an author, and the first African-American woman to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

According to Wikipedia:

In 1940, Murray sat in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus with a friend, and they were arrested for violating state segregation laws. This incident, and her subsequent involvement with the socialist Workers’ Defense League, led her to pursue her career goal of working as a civil rights lawyer. … Murray graduated first in her class, but she was denied the chance to do post-graduate work at Harvard University because of her gender. She earned a master’s degree in law at University of California, Berkeley, and in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.

Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, the “bible” of the civil rights movement. In 1966 she was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Murray held faculty or administrative positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and Brandeis University.

An important mentor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she is featured in On the Basis of Sex, the (fictionalized) story of GInsburg’s first gender equality case, but is not mentioned in The Notorious RBG.

Again from WIkipedia:

Murray struggled in her adult life with issues related to her sexual and gender identity, describing herself as having an “inverted sex instinct”. She had a brief, annulled marriage to a man and several deep relationships with women. In her younger years, she occasionally had passed as a teenage boy.

Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” for gender equivalents to the restrictive “Jim Crow” policies of post Civil War “reconstruction.” A relatively new biography, Jane Crow: The LIfe of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg, identifies Murray as, among many other things, transgender.

I find it impossible to think about Murray without wishing I had known her.

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