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Author’s note: Pauli Murray pioneered an expansive view of gender. To reflect this, I will be using they and she pronouns.

“I will resist every attempt to categorize me, to place me in some caste, or to assign me to some segregated pigeonhole. No law which imprisons my body or custom which wounds my spirit can stop me.”[1]

Pauli Murray was, indeed, unstoppable. And they have much to teach us about the struggle for justice and equality in American life.[2] Murray was an African American activist, attorney, priest, poet, and human rights champion. She also faced the tremendous obstacles of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Murray was always ahead of their time but rarely received recognition. Throughout her life, she was a key player in the fights for African American and women’s rights. At the same time, she was negotiating her own racial identity, struggling to earn a good living, and seeking more understanding of her sexuality and gender identity. 

Sometimes knocked down but never knocked out, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray maintained a life-long belief in democracy. She also lived by the examples set by family who risked life and livelihood for freedom and the rights of all. “It has taken me almost a lifetime to discover,” Murray wrote, “that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”[3]

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 20, 1910. She was the fourth of six children born to Agnes Fitzgerald and William Murray. Her father William was a graduate of Howard University. He worked as a teacher and later a principal in the Baltimore public school system. Her mother was a nurse. In 1914, when Pauli was three, Agnes died of a cerebral hemorrhage. William’s mental health suffered – perhaps made worse by the loss of Agnes, or a result of typhoid fever, or a combination of factors. He found himself unable to care for his children. Five brothers and sisters began living with William’s sister and brother. Only young Pauli went to live with her mother’s extended family in Durham, North Carolina. This included her aunt (and namesake) Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, as well as her grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald. William was eventually admitted to Crownsville State Hospital because he suffered from depression. Known at the time as the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland, it was notoriously overcrowded and understaffed. In 1923, a white hospital guard murdered Pauli’s father. 

After graduating from Durham’s Hillside High School in 1926, Murray moved to New York City. She wanted to attend Columbia University, but they did not admit women. Instead, they attended Hunter College, financing their studies with any job they could find. She graduated in 1933 with a degree in English Literature. During this time, Murray began to question gender and gender identification. Throughout the 1930s, these questions — and her expanding ideas of gender itself — became central to their life. She chose the gender neutral name “Pauli.”

Pauli created a photo album during this era, titled The Life and Times of an American Called Pauli Murray. Included were self-portraits (“selfies”) showing different sides of her personality. They were captioned “The Dude,” “The Vagabond,” “The Acrobat,” “The Crusader,” and “The Imp.”[4] During this time, Murray also pursued gender-affirming treatments, including hormone therapy. Doctors refused her requests. But that didn’t keep Pauli from being herself. Pauli Murray trusted in herself and her own experiences. They navigated the world at a time when gender difference (including what we now understand as being transgender) was not discussed. Trusting herself and her experiences, Pauli talked and wrote about her “boy-girl” personality. Her life as a mixed-race, same-sex loving, gender non-conforming person shaped her understanding of politics, spirituality, and of people. [5]

In New York City, Murray worked for the Works Projects Administration (WPA). They also taught with the city’s Remedial Reading Project and were a prolific writer. Magazines including Common Ground and the NAACP’s The Crisis printed Pauli’s articles and poetry.[6]

In 1938, Murray again met with discrimination in pursuing her education. This time, a university (the University of North Carolina) denied their application because she was Black. Murray fought their decision through a letter-writing and media campaign, but was unsuccessful. While the NAACP did not support her, Murray’s fight received national attention. From this experience, Murray concluded, “One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.”[7] Her advocacy also resulted in a life-long friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.[8]

Murray continued her work with the civil rights movement, including joining Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Founded in 1915, FOR was an interfaith organization for peace and justice.  As a member, Murray worked to end segregation on public transportation. In Petersburg, Virginia in March of 1940, authorities arrested her and a friend for refusing to sit on a broken seat at the back of a bus. Influenced in part by her own arrest, in 1941 Murray enrolled in law school at Howard University. Their goal: to become a civil rights lawyer. On the recommendation of Howard professor Leon Ransom, Murray received a scholarship. 

Even as a law student, Pauli Murray continued their quest for justice. In 1942, they joined George Houser, James Farmer, and 47 others to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE used non-violent civil disobedience to challenge racial segregation in the United States. She took part in several sit-ins protesting discrimination by Washington, DC restaurants. And they continued to wield their typewriter. In 1943, Murray published two important essays. These were “Negroes Are Fed Up” in Common Sense, and an article about the Harlem race riot in the socialist New York Call.[9] Their most famous poem, Dark Testament, was also written that year. Through these and other writings, Murray influenced and shaped the civil rights movement for decades.[10]

In 1944, Pauli Murray graduated law school at the top of their class. This was despite discrimination she faced from faculty and students as the only female-identified person in her class. Indeed, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe oppression faced by Black women, decades before Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us “intersectionality.”[11] It was tradition for the top law graduate from Howard to receive a Rosenwald Fellowship.[12] And Murray was no exception. Like other recipients, Murray planned to use the money to attend Harvard Law. But Harvard rejected her application because of her gender. Instead, they went to law school at the University of California. There, Murray completed their Master of Laws degree. Her thesis was titled, The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment

After graduation, Murray served as California’s first Black deputy attorney general before returning to New York. Back in New York City, they provided support to the growing civil rights movement. Her book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was published in 1951.[13] The United Methodist Women had commissioned it as part of their Charters for Racial Justice. Thurgood Marshall, head of NAACP’s legal department, described the book as the “Bible” for civil rights litigators. 

In the early 1950s, civil rights advocates were among those targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murray was no exception. In 1952, she lost a US State Department post at Cornell University. Cornell felt that those who provided her references (Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and A. Philip Randolph) were too radical. In a letter to Murray, they justified their position “in view of the troublous [sic] times in which we live.”[14] Murray was very disappointed and discouraged about not getting this job. She turned her attention to a project she started in college, writing about her family’s contributions to American democracy.

In 1956, Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.[15] In its pages, Murray describes the effects of racism on her grandparents. The book also serves as a poignant portrayal of her hometown of Durham. Shortly after the book came out, Murray took a job in litigation at the New York law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. While there, Murray met her life partner Irene Barlow, the office manager at the firm. After several years, Murray grew disheartened about racial violence in the US and decided to try something very different.

Pauli Murray True Community Mural, Durham, North Carolina (Photo courtesy of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice)

In 1960, Murray traveled to Ghana to explore their African cultural roots. While there, she taught at the Ghana School of Law and co-authored a book, The Constitution and Government of Ghana.[16] When Murray returned to the United States, she enrolled in the Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD) program at Yale. Murray mentored several young women at Yale, including Marian Wright Edelman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Patricia Roberts Harris. They all later became leaders and activists in their own right. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to receive a JSD from Yale. 

President John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. At the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt, he appointed Pauli Murray to the Commission’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights. There, Murray worked closely with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King. While committed to the work, she was critical of the way men dominated civil rights leadership positions. In August 1963, she wrote to Randolph that she was “increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.”[17]

Murray brought out-of-the box solutions to long-standing disputes within the women’s movement. Her work paved the way for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others to champion all aspects of women’s equality. For example, Pauli Murray was key to keeping “sex” in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The result was a fundamental legal protection for women against employment discrimination. In 1966, Murray joined Betty Friedan and others to form the National Organization for Women (NOW). She hoped it would work to advance the causes of all women, but was ultimately disappointed. Noting that issues faced by Black and working-class women were being ignored, Murray stepped back from leadership. “The lesson of history,” Pauli wrote, “is that all human rights are indivisible and that the failure to adhere to this principle jeopardizes the rights of all.”[18]

From 1968 to 1973, Murray taught American Studies at Brandeis University. When Irene Barlow died in 1973, Murray left Brandeis to pursue a religious calling. They enrolled at the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York City. When the denomination failed to support women’s ordination, Murray left GTS during her final year. In 1976, she enrolled at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. There, with a more supportive faculty, she finished her degree. 

In 1977, Pauli Murray became the first Black woman in the US ordained to the Episcopal priesthood. Her ordination ceremony was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray offered her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was the same church where Murray’s grandmother Cornelia, the enslaved child of Miss Mary Ruffin Smith, was baptized in 1854.

Rev. Murray worked closely with hospice patients and delivered sermons and lectures across the country. When she became ill with cancer several years later, she began organizing her papers. Her archives at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University contain 2,573 folders. Within them, Murray’s letters, speeches, manuscripts, poetry, and journals reflect a lifetime of mobilizing justice and equality for an entire nation.[19]

Pauli Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh on July 1, 1985. At the time, they were finishing their autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage.[20] It was published posthumously in 1987. Several of her works, including Song in a Weary Throat, Dark Testament, and Proud Shoes remain in publication.[21]  Murray was buried with her long-time partner, Irene Barlow, Murray’s two aunts, and Barlow’s mother. Their grave is at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, Durham, North Carolina (Photo by Brad Bunyea)

In 2011, the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice saved her childhood home from demolition. The Center grew out of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center/John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. In 2015, the National Trust for Historic Preservation deemed the home a National Treasure, raising its public profile. At the same time, with a grant from the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, the Center nominated the home as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). NHLs are places with exceptional significance in our nation’s history. The NHL program is managed by the National Park Service. In December of 2016, the Secretary of the Interior approved the Pauli Murray Family Home as an NHL. While the building is not currently open to the public, visitors are welcome to visit the outdoor exhibit that tells the stories of Pauli Murray and of the house. 

Pauli Murray’s story is a catalyst. She shows us the value of living our truth; of documenting and telling our own stories; and the power of reaching across our differences to create true community —a place in which “human dignity can take root and grow.”[22]

[1] Pauli Murray (1945) “An American Credo,” Common Ground 5, no.2, pg. 22-24.

[2] I have chosen to use pronouns she/her and they/them in reference to Pauli Murray. They lived during a time when terminology around LGBTQ+, gender expression, and trans/genderqueer/non-binary identities was used very differently than today. Though socially perceived as a woman, Murray used the phrase “he/she personality” about themself in correspondence with family members during their early years. Later in journals, essays, letters and autobiographical works, Pauli employed “she/her/hers” pronouns. We don’t know how Pauli Murray would identify if they were living today or which pronouns she would use for self-expression. We do know Murray chose a gender-neutral name, Pauli, over their birth name, Anna Pauline. A 2021 documentary film, My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, includes an exploration of Murray’s gender identity. 

[3] Pauli Murray (1956) Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Harper & Rowe, New York (Reprinted in 1978, paperback by Beacon Press, 1999), pg. 62.

[4] The entire photo album can be viewed online at the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University,$2i

[5] Pauli Murray Letter to Aunt Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, 1943. For additional discussion about Pauli Murray’s pronouns, gender identity, and gender expression see: Doreen Drury (2009) “Love, Ambition, and ‘Invisible Footnotes’ in the Life and Writing of Pauli Murray.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture & Society.” 11, no.3 pg. 295-309; Brittney C. Cooper (2017) Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chapter 3: Queering Jane Crow: Pauli Murray’s Quest for an Unhyphenated Identity; Rosalind Rosenberg (2017) Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. Oxford University Press, New York; and Naomi Simmons-Thorne (2019) Pauli Murray and the Pronomial Problem: A De-essentialist Trans Historiography, Activist History Review, May 30. 

[6] The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an American civil rights organization founded in 1909.

[7] Pauli Murray (2018) Song in a Weary Throat: Memoire of An American Pilgrimage. W.W. Norton, New York pg. 314.

[8] For more about Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray’s letters, see Patricia Bell-Scott (2016) The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social JusticeAlfred A. Knopf, New York. 

[9] Pauli Murray (1943) “Negroes Are Fed Up.” Common Sense, August 1943, pg. 274-276.

[10] The poem was published as a part of a larger collection of Murray’s work in 1970 by Silvermine Press, and was republished in 2018 by W.W. Norton. Pauli Murray (2018) Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

[11] Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (2017) On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. The New Press, New York.

[12] Julius Rosenwald was a part owner and chair of the board of directors of Sears, Roebuck and Company. In 1917, he and his family established the Rosenwald Fund “for the well-being of mankind.” It is perhaps best known for funding the construction of over 5,000 schools for Black students in the early 1900s. The Fund also gave fellowship grants directly to African Americans between 1928 and 1948 – including the top graduates of Howard University’s law school.

[13] Pauli Murray (1951) States’ Laws on Race and Color. Women’s Division of Christian Service, Board of Missions and Church Extension, Methodist Church, Cincinnati.

[14] Murray (2018) Song in a Weary Throat, pg. 385.

[15] Pauli Murray (1956) Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Harper & Row, New York (reprinted in 1978, paperback by Beacon Press, 1999).

[16] Pauli Murray and Leslie Rubin (1964) The Constitution and Government of Ghana. Sweet and Maxwell, London.

[17] Pauli Murray (1963) Letter to A. Philip Randolph, August 21, 1963. Schlesinger Library.

[18] Pauli Murray (1995) “The Liberation of Black Women,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The New Press, New York, pg. 197.

[19] Schlesinger Library, Papers of Pauli Murray, 1827-1985, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University,

[20] Pauli Murray (1987) Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. Harper & Row, New York (reissued in 2018 with a new introduction by Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company).

[21] Song in a Weary Throat was re-released as Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest and Poet in 1987, and later republished under its original title with a new introduction by Patricia Bell-Scott in 2018. Her book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems with a new introduction by Elizabeth Alexander, originally published in 1970, has also, like the autobiography, been reissued by Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Perhaps Murray’s most recognized work, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, has been in print since its original publication in 1956.

[22] Pauli Murray sermon, “The Second Great Commandment,” given at the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1976. The full manuscript is found in the Pauli Murray Papers, box 64, folder 1091, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University. Citation is found in Pauli Murray, Selected Sermons and Writings, ed. Anthony Pinn. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.

Bell-Scott, Patricia (2016) The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Cooper, Brittney C. (2017) Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Drury, Doreen (2009) “Love, Ambition, and ‘Invisible Footnotes’ in the Life and Writing of Pauli Murray” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture & Society 11, no. 3: 295-309.

Murray, Pauli (1943) “Negroes Are Fed Up” Common Sense, August 1943.

Murray, Pauli (1945) “An American Credo” Common Ground 5 no. 2: 22-24.

Murray, Pauli (1951) States’ Laws on Race and Color. Women’s Division of Christian Service, Board of Missions and Church Extension, Methodist Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Murray, Pauli (1956) Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Harper & Row, New York.

Murray, Pauli (1987) Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. Harper & Row, New York.

Murray, Pauli (1995) “The Liberation of Black Women” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The New Press, New York.

Murray, Pauli (2018) Dark Testament and Other Poems. Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Murray, Pauli (2018) Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of An American Pilgrimage. W.W. Norton, New York.

Murray, Pauli and Leslie Rubin (1964) The Constitution and Government of Ghana. Sweet and Maxwell, London.

Rosenberg, Rosalind (2017) Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. Oxford University Press, New York.

Schlesinger Library, “Papers of Pauli Murray, 1827-1985: Finding Aid” Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Simmons-Thorne, Naomi (2019) “Pauli Murray and the Pronomial Problem: A De-essentialist Trans HistoriographyActivist History Review, May 30, 2019.

West, Betsy and Julie Cohen, directors (2021) My Name is Pauli Murray. Distributed by Amazon Studios.

About the Author
Barbara Lau (she/her) is executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center/John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. In her roles, Lau connects her commitment to justice with her belief in the power of community practice.

Lau brings 40 years of experience as a folklorist, curator, professor, oral historian, media producer, and author to this work. Her credits includes curating exhibitions, performances and public art projects. She has produced To Buy the Sun, an original play about Pauli Murray; co-directed the Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life community mural project; curated Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest, two major exhibitions about Cambodian American traditions and many small traveling exhibits about Durham history. 

She is a recipient of the 2014 Samuel DuBois Cook Society Award, the 2013 Outstanding Faculty Award from the Duke Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity,  and the 2012 of the Carlie B. Sessoms Award from the Durham Human Relations Commission for her leadership. She was honored with the National Association of Multicultural Education’s Children’s Publication Award in 2003. She received her BA in Urban Studies and Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and her MA in Folklore at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

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