ANNA PAULINE “PAULI” MURRAY was an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a woman’s rights activist, Episcopal priest and author (d: 1985); While Pauli identified as a man trapped in a woman’s body, and used the “he” pronoun in self-refences, he was drawn to the ministry, and in 1977 Murray was recognized as the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, in the first year that any women were ordained by that church.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray was virtually orphaned when young, and he was raised mostly by his maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. At the age of 16, he moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, and graduated with a B.A. of Arts degree in English in 1933. 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 Worker’s Defense League, led him to pursue his career goal of working as a civil rights lawyer. He enrolled in the law school at Howard University, where he also became aware of sexism. She called it “Jane Crow”, alluding to the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Murray graduated first in his class, but he was denied the chance to do post-graduate work at Harvard University because of her gender. He earned a master’s degree in law at University of California, Berkeley, and in 1965 he became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Judicial Science degree from Yale Law School.
As a lawyer, Murray argued for civil rights and women’s rights. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, the “bible” of the civil rights movement. Murray served on the 1961–1963 Presidential Commistion on the Status of Women, being appointed by John F. Kennedy. In 1966 he was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Murray as a coauthor of a brief on the 1971 case Reed v Reed, in recognition of her pioneering work on gender discrimination. This case articulated the “failure of the courts to recognize sex discrimination for what it is and its common features with other types of arbitrary discrimination.” Murray held faculty or administrative positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College , and Brandeis University.
In 1973, Murray left academia for activities associated with the Episcopal Church. He became an ordained priest in 1977, among the first generation of women priests. 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. A number of scholars, including a 2017 biographer, have retroactively classified her as transgender. In addition to her legal and advocacy work, Murray published two well-reviewed autobiographies and a volume of poetry. Her volume of poetry, Dark Testament, was republished in 2018.
Murray wore her hair short and preferred pants to skirts; due to her slight build, there was a time in her life when she was often able to pass as a teenage boy. In her twenties, she shortened her name from Pauline to the more androgynous Pauli. At the time of her arrest for the bus segregation protest in 1940, she gave her name as “Oliver” to the arresting officers. Murray pursued hormone treatments in the 1940s to correct what she saw as a personal imbalance and even requested abdominal surgery to test if she had “submerged” male sex organs. Writing about Murray’s understanding of their gender, Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, categorized Murray as a transgender man. When asked about her understanding of Murray’s gender in a 2017 interview with the African American Intellectual History Society, Rosenberg states, “(During Pauli’s early life) These were years when the term transgender did not exist and there was no social movement to support or help make sense of the trans experience. Murray’s papers helped me to understand how her struggle with gender identity shaped her life as a civil rights pioneer, legal scholar, and feminist.” In an interview with HuffPost Queer Voices, Dr. Brittney Cooper agreed on the matter “Murray prefered androgynous dress, had a short hairstyle and may have identified as a transgender male today … but lacked the language to do so at the time.
On July 1, 1985, Pauli Murray died of pancreatic cancer in the house she owned with lifelong friend, Maida Springer Kemp, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 2012 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to honor Murray as one of its Holy Women, Holy Men, to be commemorated on July 1, the anniversary of her death, along with fellow writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina said this recognition honors “people whose lives have exemplified what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and make a difference in the world.”
In 2015 the National Turst for Historic Preservation designated the childhood home of Murray (on Carroll Street in Durham, North Carolina’s West End neighborhood) as a National Treasure.
In April 2016,Yale University announced that it had selected Murray as the namesake of one of two new residential colleges (Pauli Murray College) to be completed in 2017; the other was to be named after Benjamin Franklin.
In December 2016 the Pauli Murray Family Home was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior. In 2018 Murray was chosen by the National Women’s History Project as one of its honorees for Women’s History Month in the United States.
Also in 2018, Murray was made a permanent part of the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints (she is commemorated on July 1). Thurgood Marshall and Florence Li Tim-Oi were also added permanently to the calendar.
[h/t Vic Mansfield for this lead]