IMP, CRUSADER, DUDE, PRIEST
February 7, 2018
Last spring I came across an article in The New Yorker magazine that caught my eye because of the way its lofty title, “SAINT PAULI,” was juxtaposed with an opening photograph of a quite young Black woman looking over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. I was intrigued. And in the back of my mind was Edyie Wood’s comment in this church last February about what could be the value of not limiting ourselves to just the best-known figures in African-American history when we celebrate Black History Month. I read the article, found it fascinating, mentioned it to Edyie, who mentioned it to Steve and Mary, and so here I am.
Pauli Murray, it turns out, was a dynamite personality who made remarkable contributions to both Black civil rights and women’s rights from the 1940s through to the 1970s. The New Yorker article, written by one Kathryn Schulz, begins by recreating the scene in which a 33- year-old Pauli Murray, in a classroom at the law school of Howard University in 1944, bucks the opinion of every one of her classmates in insisting that the key to doing away with Plessy v. Ferguson (the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that had established supposedly “separate but equal” schooling for white and black children) rests on challenging NOT the term “equal,” but rather the term “separate.” Murray then turns to their professor, a man named Spottswood Robinson, and makes a ten- dollar bet with him that within twenty-five years, Plessy v. Ferguson will be overturned.
Our New Yorker article-writer Kathryn Schulz continues: Murray was right. Plessy was overturned in a decade—and, when it was, Robinson owed her a lot more than ten dollars. In her final law school paper, Murray had formalized the idea she’d hatched in class that day, arguing that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Some years later, when Robinson joined with Thurgood Marshall and others to try to end Jim Crow, he remembered Murray’s paper, fished it out of his files, and presented it to his colleagues—the team that, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.
I’ll keep going with the words of Schulz for a minute, because this is where she gives her central overview of Pauli Murray’s life: By the time Murray learned of her contribution, she was nearing fifty, two- thirds of the way through a life as remarkable for its range as for its influence. A poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, and Episcopal priest, Murray palled around in her youth with Langston Hughes, joined James Baldwin at the MacDowell [writers’] Colony the first year it admitted African-Americans, maintained a twenty-three- year friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and helped Betty Friedan found the National Organization for Women. Along the way, she articulated the intellectual foundations of two of the most important social-justice movements of the twentieth century: first, when she made her argument for overturning Plessy, and, later, when she co-wrote a law- review article subsequently used by a rising star at the A.C.L.U.—one Ruth Bader Ginsberg—to convince the Supreme Court that the Equal
Protection Clause applies to women.
This was Murray’s lifelong fate: to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes. Two decades before the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, Murry was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia; organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington D.C.; and, anticipating the Freedom Summer, urged her Howard classmates to head south to fight for civil rights and wondered how to “attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.” It may be that we WILL be hearing more about Pauli Murray in the near future, because, Schulz tells us, “The past few years . . . have seen a burst of interest in her life and work. She’s been sainted by the Episcopal Church [NOW we get the St. Pauli title!], had a residential college named after her at Yale,. . . and had her childhood home
designated a national Historic Landmark. In addition, two books about Murray’s life have come out over the past two years.
I’ll take a little more time now to highlight what I saw as points of particular interest in Schulz’s overall account of Murray’s life: her family background, her drive towards higher education, the barriers she faced, the civil rights causes she served, and the sexual identity dilemmas she struggled with. As a way to relate to this material, you might find it helpful to keep in mind as a point of comparison any female relative you have who was born within say, five or ten years of Pauli Murray’s own birthdate of 1910.
Anna Pauline Murray was three years old when her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her father, left in their Baltimore home with six children under the age of ten to deal with, sent Pauli to Durham, North Carolina, to live with her maternal aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald, after whom she was named.” At Pauli’s age six, her father was committed to a state hospital for the Negro insane—where, in 1922, he was beaten to death by a white guard. The saving grace for Pauli, Schulz suggests, is that she “had, by then, a strong if complicated sense of her family in North Carolina. She and her Aunt Pauline lived in the home of young Pauli’s maternal grandparents, Cornelia and Robert Fitzgerald. Her grandmother, Cornelia, had been born in bondage; her own mother was a part-Cherokee slave .., her father had been the owner’s son and frequent rapist of her mother. Pauli’s grandfather Robert, by contrast, was raised in Pennsylvania, attended anti-slavery meetings with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and fought for the Union in the Civil War. Together, they formed part of a large and close-knit family whose members ranged from Episcopalians to Quakers, impoverished to wealthy, fair-skinned and blue-eyed to dark-skinned and curly-haired. When they all got together, Murray wrote, it looked “like a United Nations in miniature.”
Young Pauli blazed a trail of academic and extracurricular achievements at the black high school she attended in Durham, but wanted after graduation to continue her education well away from North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws. She moved to New York, made preparations to attend Hunter College, and rented a room in Harlem, where she supported herself by waitressing and “befriended Langston Hughes, met W.E.B. DeBois, attended lectures by the civil-rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and paid twenty-five cents at the Apollo Theatre to hear the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.”
Her radicalism had an extra boost from witnessing and sharing in the hardships of the Great Depression. When her relatives pressured her to move back to North Carolina after her graduation from Hunter, she started thinking about getting agraduate degree in an area that would help her promote social change. In 1938, at age 28, she applied to North Carolina University’s graduate program in sociology, hoping that a few white ancestors’ connections with North Carolina University might open the door to her. Six days later, she received a reply which read, “Dear Miss Murray . . . I write to state that . . . members of your race are not admitted to the University.” She turned back to social activism. Among other things, she wrote a letter to FDR during that period, agitating for his attention to the injustices promoted by White Supremacy, that led to the start of her decades-long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
It was during this period that she gave a fund-raising speech at a Workers Defense League meeting in Virginia that made a deep impression on two eminent Black male legal figures attending the talk—Howard University Law Professor Leon Ransom and Supreme Court Justice-to- be Thurgood Marshall. Ransom afterwards told her that if she could get accepted to Howard Law School, he would see to it that she would receive a scholarship. Marshall’s contribution to the cause was to write her a letter of recommendation. She applied and was accepted. It turned out to be a wake-up call to feminism. As Schulz puts it: At Howard, her race ceased to be an issue, but her gender abruptly became one. Everyone else was male—all the faculty, all her classmates. One the first day, one of her professors announced to his class that he didn’t know why a woman would want to go to law school, a comment that both humiliated Murray and guaranteed, as she recalled, “That I would become the top student.” She termed this form of degradation “Jane Crow” and spent much of the rest of her life working to end it.
Her initial efforts at combatting sexism were dispiriting. Upon earning her J.D. from Howard, Murray applied to Harvard for [further] graduate work, only to get a letter which read: “You are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” Murray, outraged, wrote a memorable rejoinder: “Gentlemen, 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 on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other? A while after this exchange, Murray decided to seek work as a lawyer in New York. She scraped along—it was difficult for a black woman lawyer to find employment—but ended up making her mark through accepting a commission in 1948 from the women’s division of the Methodist Church. They wanted to know, for all the thirty-one states where the Methodist Church had parishes, when they were legally obliged to adhere to segregation laws and when segregation was merely custom. They were looking for Murry to produce something like a pamphlet. What Murray ended up with instead was, in Schulz’s words, a seven-hundred-and- forty-six- page book entitled “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” that exposed both the extent and the insanity of American segregation. The A.C.L.U. distributed copies to law libraries, black colleges, and human-rights organizations. Thurgood Marshall, who kept stacks of it around the N.A.A.C.P. offices, called it “the bible” of Brown v. Board of Education.
Next in Murray’s life came a period of prestigious but lonely service in the 1950s in a NYC law firm, and a job at the Ghana School of Law in 1960, just at the point where the American civil rights movement for racial equality was picking up speed. When she came back to the U.S., Pauli Marshall decided to focus her attention instead on helping to strengthen the still-young women’s movement. She served that cause by arguing sex discrimination cases, serving on President Kennedy’s newly created Presidential Commission on themStatus of Women and, in 1965, proposing a women’s march on Washington. Betty Friedan, hearing of that, recruited Marshall to join the group of feminists that launched the National Organization for Women.
The gay rights movement, meanwhile, was yet to come—which meant that Murray never had a public outlet for what her diaries show to have been her decades of deep unease with her sexual identity. Murray gives two paragraphs in her published autobiography to the extremely short-lived marriage she made at age twenty which she terms a “dreadful mistake.” Her unpublished diaries give a broader picture of the painful frustration and periods of breakdown that she endured throughout her life due to her sense of possessing either a mixed-sex or a predominantly male identity held captive inside a woman’s body.
Possibly, Schulz suggests, these inner battles might have contributed to Pauli Murray’s turn towards a totally new career path late in her life, when she walked away from a tenured professorship at Brandeis, in the American Studies Department she herself helped pioneer, and entered New York’s General Theological Seminary to become an Episcopal priest. On January 8 th , 1977, four weeks after Murray had completed her seminary coursework and one week after the Episcopal Church had agreed to allow women to become priests, Murray became the first African-American woman to be vested as a priest.
Kathryn Schulz concludes her New Yorker profile on Murray with a suggestion about her possible motivation for priesthood that I suspect will resonate with the values of this congregation: Perhaps, in the end, she was drawn to the Church simply because of the claim made in Galatians, the one denied by it and by every other community she ever found, the one she spent her whole life trying to affirm: that, for purposes of human worth, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.”