‘How is Pauli Murray not a household name?’ The extraordinary life of the US’s most radical activist

It seems inconceivable that someone like Pauli Murray could have slipped through the cracks of US history. A lawyer, activist, scholar, poet and priest, Murray led a trailblazing life that altered the course of history. She was at the forefront of the battles for racial and gender equality, but often so far out in front that her contributions went unrecognised.

In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks, Murray was jailed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in the Jim Crow south. In 1943, she campaigned successfully to desegregate her local diner, 17 years before the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Her work paved the way for the landmark supreme court ruling Brown v Board of Education in 1954 – which de-segregated US schools – to the extent that Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the NAACP civil rights group, called Murray’s book States’ Laws on Race and Color “the bible for civil rights lawyers”.

Murray also co-founded the National Organization for Women (Now), in 1966, alongside Betty Friedan. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg won the Reed v Reed case in 1971, which ruled that discrimination “on the basis of sex” was unconstitutional, her arguments were built on Murray’s work. Ginsburg named Murray as co-author of the brief. “We knew when we wrote that brief that we were standing on her shoulders,” Ginsburg later said.

Murray ought to be celebrated as an American hero, commemorated in stamps, statuary and street names, not to mention biopics, so why is her name relatively unknown?

The film-makers Julie Cohen and Betsy West asked the same question. They learned of Murray while making their Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary, RBG. “Ginsburg had given Murray credit for coming up with the idea early on that the 14th amendment [which stipulates equal legal protection for all US citizens] could be used to win equality for women,” says West. “So we were like: ‘That’s interesting, who’s this Pauli Murray?’ And then, when we looked into Pauli’s story more, we were just completely blown away and had the immediate feeling like: how is it that Pauli Murray is not a household name?”

Their new documentary, My Name Is Pauli Murray, goes some way towards rectifying the situation. Skilfully assembled from archive footage and present-day interviews, the film is able to tell much of Murray’s story in her own voice, retrieved from audio recordings Murray made before her death in 1985. Fortunately, Murray never threw anything away, leaving a vast archive of diaries, correspondence and photographs – too much to fit into one documentary, in fact. “This is just an introduction,” says Cohen. “There’s so much more to Pauli’s story.” One example: a photograph of Murray with James Baldwin at the MacDowell artists’ retreat in New Hampshire. What happened there? But as well as a whistle-stop tour of Murray’s accomplishments, the film is a study of a complex, conflicted character.

It is no accident that Murray spent her life fighting against boundaries; she crossed many of them herself. Born in 1910, she was classified as “coloured” in the absolutist Jim Crow era, but her heritage included white and Cherokee ancestry as well as African American, enslaved people and slave-owners. Her mother died when she was three and she was raised by her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, in North Carolina. Her father was committed to an “insane asylum”, where he was killed brutally when Murray was 12.

In gender terms, too, Murray defied the norms. She often dressed and semi-identified as a man. She chose an androgynous-sounding name for herself (her given name was Anna Pauline Murray) and was attracted to, in her own words, “extremely feminine and heterosexual women” – a source of considerable anguish. Again, Murray was too far ahead of her time. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say their time.

Murray’s life is a litany of firsts and onlys. At an early age, she realised that segregation was unjust and that, to change it, she would have to take matters into her own hands. Having appraised that “separate but equal” was a sham, and school provision for Black children was vastly inferior to that for white kids, Murray moved to New York at 16 to get a better education. She was the only African American girl in her high school.

In 1938, she applied to the University of North Carolina, which some of her white relatives had attended, even though she knew it did not accept African Americans. Her application was denied. After President Franklin D Roosevelt visited UNC and gave a speech praising its liberal values, Murray wrote to him upbraiding him for his silence over civil rights issues. Roosevelt did not reply, but Eleanor Roosevelt did (she later became a close friend to Murray). “I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly,” the first lady wrote.

Murray was not minded to wait. Her spontaneous bus boycott came shortly after. Entering the Jim Crow south in Virginia, en route from New York to North Carolina, Murray and a friend found no “coloured” seats available at the back of their bus, so they remained in the front section. When the driver ordered them to move, they refused calmly and were subsequently arrested. The NAACP was ready to take up their case, intending to challenge Virginia’s segregation laws, but the judge sidestepped the issue by charging them with “disturbing the peace”.

Galvanised by the experience, Murray enrolled to study law at the historically Black Howard University “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow”. She was the only woman in her class. Very early on in law school, to the ridicule of her tutors, Murray argued that, when it came to “separate but equal”, the problem was not the “equal” but the “separate”. She bet a professor $10 that Jim Crow would be overturned within 25 years – and won by 15 years.

Murray came to realise that race was not the only barrier holding her back, though. Despite being top of her class, she was consistently discriminated against. “What I’m experiencing is Jane Crow,” she wrote. That was confirmed when she applied to Harvard, only to be rejected on account of being female. In her revealing reply to the Harvard board, she wrote: “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?” (Harvard did not change its position.)

Through a combination of activism, intelligence, unshakeable determination and a prolific work rate, Murray set about laying the foundations for ending racial, gender and economic inequality in the US. Long before intersectionality was part of the language, “Pauli confronted the sexism within the civil rights movement and the racism within the women’s movement”, says Cohen. Murray pushed the ACLU to take on cases of gender inequality, for example, and criticised the sidelining of women at the historic 1963 March on Washington. “Would the Negro struggle have come this far without the indomitable determination of its women?” she asked. By the same token, Murray grew disillusioned with Now for its centring of white, middle-class women.

Despite her forceful advocacy, Murray never sought a public profile. She was not egocentric or attention-seeking in that way, it seems, although her gender non-conformity must surely have been a factor. “Pauli Murray had some reasons to want to stay below the radar,” says Cohen. “Being someone perceived by the world to be a woman who had romantic partners who were women: completely unacceptable and not something that Pauli ever talked about openly at the time. Your career could be very badly hurt by that revelation. So that’s going to lead you to maybe not raise your hand in every instance.”

As Cohen and West’s film reveals, Murray’s gender non-conformity was apparent from a young age. As a child, she dressed in boy’s clothes and her aunt called Murray her “little boy-girl”. Photos of Murray taken in her 20s, during the Depression, when she travelled the country, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains, show her presenting as masculine in leather jackets, trousers and T-shirts. Murray labels herself in these portraits with names such as Pete, “the dude” and “the vagabond”. “I had a boyish bob and a slight figure, flat in the obvious places, which at first sight made me appear to be a small teenage boy,” Murray wrote. She later took a five-week hitch to Nebraska with a young white woman named Peggy Holmes, probably her first love, whom she met at a New Deal women’s camp. The two of them posed as scouts.

Murray did marry a man, in 1930, but the relationship didn’t even survive the honeymoon. “Why is it when men try to make love to me, something in me fights?” she wrote in her diary. Murray was convinced of an inner masculine aspect, describing herself in a note to one doctor as “a girl who should have been a boy”. She spent more than a decade seeking medical answers: reading the latest European research on “sexual deviance” by figures such as Havelock Ellis; going from doctor to doctor. She investigated hormone treatments and once requested surgical investigation for the presence of male internal sexual organs (none were found).

The lack of answers or explanations took its toll: Murray was hospitalised for depression and breakdowns on an almost annual basis. “Pauli was exploring what the options were at a time when those options just weren’t known or discussed,” says West. “In this country, there was no language for any of this. It must have been lonely, and it certainly was pretty brave for Pauli to be trying to get help.”

It is perilous to retrospectively ascribe identities, but Murray’s questions and feelings would be recognised by many transgender and gender non-conforming people today, who see her “as a beacon of solace and hope”, as one Black, trans interviewee puts it in My Name Is Pauli Murray. The assignation of pronouns is also problematic. Is it appropriate to continue to refer to Murray as “she/her”? Murray always used she/her (and this article follows suit), although some scholars insist Murray should be referred to solely as “he/him”. The Pauli Murray Center opts for using any pronouns (she/he/they), or just “Pauli” – the name Pauli self-assigned – so as to “encourage the reader to embrace the complexity of the concepts of gender, gender identity and gender expression”.

Murray’s status as an outsider who slipped through the cracks of race and gender categorisation is inseparable from her life as an activist. “Pauli’s lived experience really informed Pauli’s intellectual advancements,” says Cohen. “It made Pauli step back and think: the boxes that we try to put people in, especially to put disadvantaged groups down, are maybe in and of themselves inaccurate and damaging.”

As Rosalind Rosenberg, a biographer of Murray, observes: “Her sense of in-betweenness made her increasingly critical of boundaries, and that allowed her to make one of the most important ideas of the 20th century: that the categories of race and gender are essentially arbitrary and not a legal basis for discrimination.”

Had Murray been born in a later era, doubtless she would have argued the same for sexuality and gender identity; she might well have been active in the next civil rights frontier – for LGBTQ+ rights. As it was, Murray surprised many by renouncing her professorship at Brandeis University in 1973 to become a priest in the Episcopalian church (the first African American woman to do so, inevitably). No one could accuse Murray of not having done enough.

Recognition for Murray is at least growing beyond academia and Black historians. Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, was declared a national historic landmark in 2016 and now houses the Pauli Murray Center. Yale University has named a residential college after Murray. Murray’s poetry and her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, have been republished. It would be premature to say Murray’s time has come, but, as Murray put it: “I lived to see my lost causes found.”

Those found causes are in danger of being lost again in today’s US, however. Murray might be appalled to see the regressive, repressive abortion legislation recently passed in Texas, for example (which a Ginsburg-less supreme court didn’t block). Or the trumped-up furore over “critical race theory”, which is being used to criminalise the teaching of race-related history. Or Republican-orchestrated voter-suppression efforts. Or attempts to restrict transgender access to bathrooms in states including Murray’s own North Carolina.

There is clearly still work to be done. Murray has shown us how to do it, with intelligence, imagination and determination in the face of defeat. “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them,” Murray wrote in 1945. “Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind … With humility, but with pride, I shall offer one small life, whether in foxhole or in wheat field, for whatever it is worth, to fulfil the prophecy that all men are created equal.”

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