Anna Pauline “PAULI” MURRAY was an American civil rights activist born on this date, who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest, and author. Drawn to the ministry, in 1977 Murray was 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 she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, and graduated with a Bachelor 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 Workers’ Defense League, led her to pursue her career goal of working as a civil rights lawyer. She enrolled in the law school at Howard University, where she 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 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.
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 Commission on the Status of Women, being appointed by John F. Kennedy. In 1966 she 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. She 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 struggled with her sexual and gender identity through much of her life. Her marriage as a teenager ended almost immediately with the realization that “when men try to make love to me, something in me fights”. Although acknowledging the term “homosexual” in describing others, Murray preferred to describe herself as having an “inverted sex instinct” that caused her to behave as a man attracted to women would. She wanted a “monogamous married life”, but one in which she was the man. The majority of her relationships were with women whom she described as “extremely feminine and heterosexual”. In her younger years, Murray often was devastated by the end of these relationships, to the extent that she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment twice, in 1937 and in 1940.
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. Britnney 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.
In July 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 Trust 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.