I became interested in Pauli Murray when I heard an interview on Democracy Now with Julie Cohen and Betsy West. While Cohen and West were making their documentary about RBG, they learned about Pauli Murray. Murray’s amazing life story motivated them to produce a documentary on her life, My Name Is Pauli Murray. I was intrigued, but the documentary wasn’t available to stream. I decided to read Murray’s biography by Rosalind Rosenberg. I was not disappointed.
This definitive biography is not a quick read, but it is well worth the effort. I learned so much history through the life of this remarkable woman who deserves a place of high honor in U.S. history. As I read her story, I was amazed by her endless accomplishments as she faced racism, sexism, homophobia, and, later in her life, agism. Her family background is complex. Murray was biracial, but she always identified as Black even though she could pass as white. Her roots traced back to both slaves and slave owners. She always felt racially “in between.” From a very early age, she knew she was a boy in a girl’s body. There was no real language to talk about her gender—now we would say they was transgender. This also made her feel “in between.” She saw both race and gender issues from a unique perspective. She came from a respected Black family that valued hard work and education. She decided as a teenager that she wanted to go to college at Columbia in New York City. This was a big dream for a child born in Durham in 1910. While her family was respected in her community, they struggled financially. Murray was plagued by poverty for almost her entire life. Even with her genius and list of accomplishments, she was rarely paid a living wage.
Murray was a published writer (including poetry), lawyer, legal scholar, and activist on behalf of Blacks, women, and labor. She wrote the arguments that became the backbone of the brief that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. She co-authored the brief for RBG’s famous Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed which opened the door for Murray’s longtime belief that the 14th Amendment could be used to support women’s rights. She was way ahead of her time in terms of understanding the intersectionality of all civil rights issues and the structural dynamics of oppression. She was co-founder, with Betty Friedan, of NOW. Eleanor Roosevelt became her mentor and friend. She knew Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to name a couple of the great intellects in her circle. She was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was feisty and fearless. As a young woman, stranded in CA and needing to get home, she hopped freight trains dressed as a man. Murray searched for a doctor to help her with hormone treatments for her gender dysphoria but failed. Doctor’s also missed diagnosing thyroid disease, so it went untreated for years. Both conditions caused Murray to battle bouts of mania and depression throughout her life. It is hard to believe that one woman with so much against her could accomplish so much. She taught law in Ghana. She was the first Black to receive a JSD degree from Yale Law School. Murray was also a devout Episcopalian. Toward the end of her career, she left her successful and hard won appointment as a professor at Brandeis to go General Theological Seminary in NYC; she graduated in 1976. She was one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church and the first Black women to become an Episcopal priest. Murray was 67 in 1977 when she joined the priesthood.
While Murray was born in 1910, our lives overlapped. I was coming of age in the 60’s during the civil rights movement and the resurgence of feminism. There is so much I was unaware of, so this history through one woman’s struggles and accomplishments was a real gift. It was well worth the time and effort to read Murray’s biography. I’m motivated to continue my relationship with Pauli Murray through some of her own published works. There is also a book that focuses on her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship by Patricia Bell-Scott, that I plan to read. Pauli Murray truly captured my imagination.
Here’s a sample of Murray’s “confrontation by typewriter” (from the Poetry Foundation):
Mr. Roosevelt Regrets (Detroit Riot, 1943)
BY PAULI MURRAY
Upon reading PM newspaper’s account of Mr. Roosevelt’s statement on the recent race clashes: “I share your feeling that the recent outbreaks of violence in widely spread parts of the country endanger our national unity and comfort our enemies. I am sure that every true American regrets this.”
What’d you get, black boy,
When they knocked you down in the
And they kicked your teeth out,
And they broke your skull with clubs
And they bashed your stomach in?
What’d you get when the police shot
you in the back,
And they chained you to the beds
While they wiped the blood off?
What’d you get when you cried out to
the Top Man?
When you called on the man next to
God, so you thought,
And asked him to speak out to save
What’d the Top Man say, black boy?
“Mr. Roosevelt regrets. . . . . . .”