PAULI MURRAY – A Wise Warrior

Without interruption, history wraps itself like a shroud around the embedded exemplar of its day―tending to slough off the colorful, creative multiplicity of humanity. But every so often with great effort and a little grace, a visionary warrior steps forward; someone with the burden of marginal social status who can connect the dots for others and provide guidance to interconnectedness. Dr. Pauli Murray was just such a person―a brilliant thinking Negro woman courageously abiding in a white man’s world. As a legal inventor, she rescued the United States’ Equal Protection Clause from its previously segregated use, to apply it to all peoples. As a civil rights activist, feminist, attorney, poet, writer, and Episcopal priest she broadened many previously-fixed attitudes and laws, and yet, many of us have never heard of her. This biography is offered to acknowledge and honor her remarkable life and character. I use her term Negro, as a word of respectability for her era.

Pauli was born November 20, 1910 in Baltimore and forsaken at age three, when her mother died. Her Aunt Pauline adopted her and took her to live in Durham, North Carolina with her two aunts (both teachers) and grandparents. Pauli’s grandmother, Cornelia, was the daughter of a white slave-owner lawyer and his mixed-blood Cherokee slave. Although raised with white Southern dignity, Cornelia’s “master” had not freed her. Grandfather, Robert had been a free person of color, fought in the Union Army, and later established schools for former slaves. As a descendant of both slave and slave owner, Pauli called her origins, “a peculiarly American background.” and memorialized the beauty of her mixed ancestry in her book, Proud Shoes.

Her grandparents lived out the Civil War on opposite sides, but both celebrated the freedom granted by the Emancipation Proclamation. The South promptly retaliated against Negro freedom with Ku Klux Klan mob violence and constitutional challenges. The legal efforts culminated in the 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson, requiring separate railway cars. The U.S. Supreme Court held that state-imposed racial segregation did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. With a single dissent by Justice John Marshall, the other seven white male justices ushered in the Jim Crow era of, “separate but equal” and cast a pall across America that lasted for over a half century.

Growing up with segregation, Pauli comprehended,

race was the atmosphere one breathed from day to day, the pervasive irritant, the chronic allergy, the vague apprehension which made one uncomfortable and jumpy. . . .a deadly snake coiled and ready to strike, and that one avoided its dangers only by never-ending watchfulness.

She walked everywhere rather than take Jim Crow streetcars and refused theater outings where she was forced to sit in the upstairs “peanut gallery.”

Eager to leave the South, Pauli entered New York City’s Hunter College, where among other things, she learned to use the word “Negro,” to replace “colored,” as a term of respectability. With no financial support, she worked jobs at low wages, when she could find work at all. As the Great Depression hit, her waitress job provisioned her one daily meal, resulting in her becoming malnourished. Upon graduation in 1933, an estimated 16 million people were unemployed; Pauli luckily secured a teaching assignment through one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Skimping by, she applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina. But, even with its liberal reputation, it denied her admission due to her race. Her frustration moved her to study Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience. The dreaded bus rides into the South to visit her Aunt provided the perfect opportunity to practice, which she did by refusing to sit in broken seats at the back of the bus, resulting in her arrest and jail-time. She went on to implement Gandhi’s principles in organizing sit-in demonstrations for students at local restaurants in Washington D.C.

She had arrived in Washington in 1941, after receiving a tuition scholarship to Howard Law School. Her excitement at the opportunity to train as a civil rights lawyer was soon dampened; she found herself the only woman in an all-male Negro faculty and student body, and became the brunt of overt and demeaning sexual bigotry. Never one to be banished, she excelled academically and graduated first in her class. Her “Jane Crow” experience―as she called it―helped her grasp the analogy between sex and race discrimination, later becoming her signature legal theory, and developing into the modern concept of “intersectionality.”

As World War II engulfed the U.S., her Howard classmates were called to serve. The crushing issue for the students was how could they risk their lives fighting fascism abroad while still surrounded by it at home? Within this charged atmosphere, Pauli advanced her radical approach to overturning segregation―arguing for a frontal assault on its constitutionality instead of chipping away at it on a case-by-case basis (the NAACP’s strategy). Her male classmates jeered at her for what they considered an unfeasible approach―or perhaps just because she was a woman.

Not to be silenced and with great foresight, Pauli grounded her position in her final law school paper titled, “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v. Ferguson be Overruled?” Returning to the 13th and 14th Amendments, she contended classification by color was inherently “arbitrary,” unconstitutional, and not within state power. Paraphrasing Justice Harlan’s dissent, she stated the purpose of the 13th Amendment was, “to abolish not only slavery but also the burdens, incidents, and disabilities of slavery.” Still, without precedent, she needed more. She found essential support in An American Dilemma (1944), a two-volume race relations analysis compiled by Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal. Utilizing extensive social and psychological data, he demonstrated that segregation “placed the Negro in an inferior social and legal position and did violence to the personality of the individual affected.”

It would take ten years, but in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court declared the “separate but equal” doctrine had no place in public education and that segregation was a denial of the 14th Amendment’s guaranteed equal protection laws. Echoing Pauli’s strategy, the Court found sufficient modern authority, including Myrdal’s study, to prove that,

separating students from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

Elated by the ruling, Pauli felt further vindicated when her former skeptical Howard law professor, Spottswood W. Robinson, III, confessed he had shared her law school paper with the NAACP team and it had assisted them in formulating their arguments before the High Court.

Graduating top of her class at Howard, and even with a recommendation from President Roosevelt in hand, Harvard University denied her admission―because she was a woman. Instead, she enrolled at University of California’s Berkeley Boalt Hall, obtained her master’s in law, passed the California Bar Exam, and was appointed the first Negro Deputy Attorney General in California. As only a temporary position, she soon returned to New York—competing for work in the midst of returning war veterans.

Adding to the already strained atmosphere was McCarthyism seeping into everything; New York had nearly denied her bar admission because of her “suspect” background. With the ‘Red Scare’, an even deeper fear seized Pauli―possible exposure of her gender nonconformity as she watched homosexuals rounded up in record numbers. From a young age, she had felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. She loved women, but did not consider herself homosexual, based on what she believed lesbians did, like go to bars and engage in serial relationships. Numerous times she requested male hormone injections, but her doctors refused. Periodically she suffered break-downs from the stress and had to be hospitalized or go on retreat.

For safety and reputation, she outwardly conformed to the appearance of heteronormative gender roles. Multiple burdens of race, gender, sexual choices, and economics gave her a deep understanding of all the rules needed to be observed in order to maintain credibility and influence. In a nod to her respectability, in 1947 Mademoiselle magazine named her, “Woman of the Year.” While enjoying prominence without employment, she received a $500 blessing advance from the Methodist Church to compile a pamphlet on States’ racial laws. Pauli turned it into a 746 page book, published in 1951, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshall referred to as the ‘bible’ for the final stages of Brown v. Board of Education.

After short stints working as a law clerk and then unsuccessfully attempting her own practice, she procured an attorney position at the prestigious New York firm, Paul, Weiss, etal. Already a middle-aged woman, her triple discountability of age, race, and sex isolated her from the male lawyers and relegated her to bill collection―miles from civil rights litigation. One fruitful encounter was meeting a young summer intern named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the true gift of her four years derived from forming a life-long bond with the love of her life, the white struggling office manager, Renee Barlow.

Growing restless, as she often did, Pauli took off and spent a difficult year teaching in Ghana―long enough to realize she had no particular passion for Africa and thought of herself as undeniably American. Anxious to return to the States, a cable from Yale Law School notifying her of admission and a fellowship gave her wings. Starting Yale that fall, the 1960’s swept her into the rising civil rights and feminist movements. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by her life-long supporter and friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her efforts in this position only heightened her awareness of “Jane Crow” attitudes within the civil rights movement. Heading into the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she vocalized opinions against, and was appalled by the “Big Ten” male leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.), barring women from speaking at the platform and excluding them from the pre-arranged meeting with President Kennedy.

A civil rights act was in the making when Kennedy was assassinated and President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Congress to pass it. Although not originally included in the bill, “sex” as a protected class got added in an amended version. Adopted by the House and sent to the Senate, at the last minute one senator threatened derailment of the “sex” variant. Upon request, Pauli provided a strongly worded Memorandum. Applying her ground-breaking arguments that sex and race discrimination are interrelated and overlap, she pointed out the tragic consequences in U.S. history of ignoring the interrelatedness of all human rights―astonishingly convincing Senators of the seriousness of sexual discrimination. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, ending segregation in public places and outlawing discrimination in employment, including discrimination based on “sex.”

Expounding on the issues advanced to the Senate, Pauli and Mary Eastwood co-authored an article, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” Published in the George Washington Law Review (December 1965), their article broke new ground at a time when few authoritative legal materials on sex discrimination existed. That same year, Pauli capped her academic performance by becoming the first Negro – male or female – to receive a Doctorate of Juridical Science from Yale.

With a soaring reputation, the ACLU appointed her to its national board of directors and, with Betty Friedan and several other women, she co-founded the National Organization of Women. As she watched the country gain greater civil rights she also witnessed the despair and anger evoked by increased police brutality and the string of assassinations: President Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963; Malcolm X in 1965; and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

The erupting mood funneled into demands for Afro-American college courses. Rising to the occasion, Brandeis University invited Pauli, as a visiting professor, to design a class in American civilization and politics. The school initiated a special Transitional Year Program for young inner-city black males (no women included). Several of the young men enrolled in Pauli’s class and began rebuking her for using the term Negro instead of “black.” But, ‘black is beautiful’ had no personal meaning for her; she had come “to appreciate the beauty of American Negroes in all their rich variety of features—revealing the harmonious genetic blending of several races.” Bristling at new racial attitudes of those enjoying privileges her generation had never known she realized,

much of my barely disguised hostility toward the Black Revolution was in reality my feminist resentment of the crude sexism I perceived in many of the male leaders of that movement.

In 1971, Pauli’s feminist “Jane Crow” article would help foster a break-through for women’s rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. The matter of Reed v. Reed involved a pair of divorced parents who both sought appointment as administrator of their dead son’s estate. The Idaho Probate Code specified, “males must be preferred to females as administrators.” With the father prevailing, the ACLU took on the mother’s appeal and engaged Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Using Pauli’s law review article as her foundation, Ginsburg laid out ways in which discrimination against women mirrored discrimination against blacks. Ginsburg pled alternative theories and the High Court agreed with her least onerous test, simple rationality, holding that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment forbid giving mandatory preference to either sex on an arbitrary basis. Ginsburg acknowledged Pauli and her co-author by naming them on the brief, recognition Pauli never received for her contribution to Brown v. Board of Education.

Donning her crown of hard-won professional successes, in 1973 Pauli’s world suddenly tilted off center with the death of her beloved life partner, Renee. Over the years, loving Renee had enabled Pauli to move beyond dual gender thinking and come to peace with her internal demons―believing a person could have qualities of both male and female just as people could be of mixed race.

Having shared the Episcopal faith with Renee, Pauli made a life-changing decision. At age 62, she resigned from a hard-earned tenured professorship at Brandeis to enter theological seminary. In 1977, the Episcopal Church had finally passed a resolution allowing women’s ordination and at age 66, Pauli became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She symbolized hope to many as she returned to Chapel Hill North Carolina, to preach her first sermon at the little church where her grandmother Cornelia―the beautiful daughter of a mixed-blood Cherokee slave and a white slave-owner―had been baptized in 1854. Her priestly earnings remained paltry but in this final calling she found some ease.

Prior to Pauli’s death, her and a friend took a summer Amtrak tour of the country. She reveled in the fact that a time had come when two Black women could travel the U.S. without restrictions―a testament to her life’s work. On July 1, 1985 at age 74, Pauli died of cancer.


Published Books:

  • Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. University of Illinois, 2017.
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. The Text Publishing Company, 2015.
  • Murray, Pauli: Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
  • Proud Shoes: The Story of An American Family. Beacon Press, 1999.
  • Rosenberg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Scott, Anne Firor, ed. Pauli Murray & Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black & White. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Legal Cases:

  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 US 483 (1954).
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
  • Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971)

Published Journal Articles:

  • Benjamin, Ruha. Cultura Obscura: Race, Power, and “Culture Talk” in the Health Sciences. American Journal of Law & Medicine, 43 (2017):225-238.
  • Chiappetti, Caroline. Note: Winning the Battle but Losing the War: The Birth and Death of Intersecting Notions of Race and Sex Discrimination in White v. Crook. 52 Harv. C.R.-C.L.L. Rev. 469 (Summer, 2017).
  • Crenshaw, Kimberle. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989, Iss. 1, Art. 8.
  • DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70.


  • Schulz, Kathryn. The Many Lives of Pauli Murray. The New Yorker, April 17, 2017.

Online Sources:

5 thoughts on “PAULI MURRAY – A Wise Warrior”

  1. Sarah Brown says:

    This is a great read as usual from you Justine!
    Please keep up your writing about strong influential women from history. This should be taught in our schools ! We need Pauli back here right now.
    Read vs Read story-incredible.
    Thank you for writing this.

  2. justinedurrell says:

    I appreciate you comments. Yes, it would be great to teach about Pauli Murray in the schools.

  3. Maureen McMeekin says:

    What an amazing story. I’ll share this with many of my friends who I’m certain will appreciate your work. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and unique historical insight on the legal impact of Pauli’s life. It’s during these chaotic times that your inspiring tales of courage and wisdom make a difference.

  4. i also have shared this with many people. we need this right now as ever.

  5. Justine Durrell says:

    Thank you for passing it on. People can always subscribe to receive the newsletter posts that come out about every three months.

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