Groundbreaking Durham Activist and Lawyer Pauli Murray Connected Race and Gender Before the Intersectional Era | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Groundbreaking Durham Activist and Lawyer Pauli Murray Connected Race and Gender Before the Intersectional Era 

The Pauli Murray mural at 313 Foster Street by a team of artists led by Brett Cook

Photo by Alex Boerner

The Pauli Murray mural at 313 Foster Street by a team of artists led by Brett Cook

Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray, a slight-framed, gender-queer, light-skinned black woman, spent her life facing discrimination and relentlessly pursuing justice. Murray is so little remembered that even locals who've seen her face in the bright mural on Foster Street might have been surprised when the Pauli Murray Family Home in Durham was recently designated a national historic landmark.

But during her lifetime, Murray had friends from the White House to Selma, Alabama. She was one of the finest legal minds and activists of the twentieth century; her work surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment contributed to the greatest legal precedents of our times.

In 1913, three-year-old Murray came to live in Durham with her maternal aunt. Despite losing both her parents and struggling with her gender and sexual identity, she had a supportive extended family of teachers who advocated for her education. After earning a bachelor's degree from Hunter College in the early thirties, she was denied admission to UNC-Chapel Hill for graduate school. It would be another thirteen years before UNC admitted black grad students.

Murray worked in teaching and workers' rights until being admitted to Howard University Law School. Although she was valedictorian, the Harvard Law fellowship typically given to top Howard graduates was denied to her on the basis of her sex, despite a letter of recommendation from President Roosevelt. She later graduated from Berkeley, passing the California state bar in 1945. In 1951, she overcame gender bias to become the sole women in her law firm, only to become a victim of McCarthyism when she applied to teach at Cornell. Her references, including Eleanor Roosevelt, were considered too radical. Persisting, Murray eventually earned her doctorate in law from Yale in 1965 and became the first female ordained priest in the American Episcopal Church in 1977.

Murray's fascinating life and personal struggles in race, feminism, and labor fueled her activism and legal work. She focused on the broadest applicability of the Fourteenth Amendment. From Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, "separate but equal" had been the law of the land. Murray argued that separation of any kind was inherently unconstitutional, as had the lone dissenting justice, John Marshall Harlan, in the 1896 landmark case. But Murray took it further, arguing for its applicability to any person, regardless of sex, race, religion, or sexuality. Murray's earlier work, including the 1950 book States' Laws on Race and Color, informed the strategy Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP took in Brown. For the first time, separate was declared unequal—and unconstitutional.

Murray's pioneering work predated and influenced much of the civil rights movement. In fact, Marshall called Murray's work "the Bible" of the movement. Murray had been arrested in 1944—ten years before Rosa Parks—for refusing to move to the broken seats in the back of a bus, and had participated in numerous sit-ins at Howard in segregated D.C. restaurants. In 1961, JFK appointed Murray to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, where she wrote "A Proposal to Reexamine the Applicability of the Fourteenth Amendment to State Laws and Practices Which Discriminate on the Basis of Sex Per Se." Her work influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader A. Philip Randolph.

But she was also critical of the lack of female leadership in the civil rights movement. In The Negro Women and the Quest for Equality and in a 1963 letter to Randolph, she censured "the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played ... and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned[.]" She went on to say, "It is indefensible to call a national march on Washington ... which contains the name of not a single woman leader." Her words influenced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a new generation of feminists.

In 1965, Murray and coauthor Mary Eastwood published Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII, drawing concrete disparities between Jim Crow laws and what she called "Jane Crow" laws. In 1966, she cofounded the National Organization of Women and, along with Dorothy Kenyon, won the White v. Crook case, which gave women the right to serve on juries. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was so struck by Jane Crow that she named Murray and Eastwood honorary coauthors of her 1971 brief for Reed v. Reed, the case that decided the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment actually applied to women.

Decades before the civil rights movement and half a century before the Moral Monday movement, Pauli Murray understood the need to connect issues of race with gender—that workers' rights and women's rights were human rights. Taken separately, each would remain a minority, but taken together, all people would have the right to equal protection under the law. Through her own litigation and that of others who used her "Bible" for civil rights, Murray left an indelible mark on twentieth-century American jurisprudence. Befitting her legacy, Murray's childhood home in Durham will reopen in 2020 as a center for history and social justice. If you'd like to learn more or support Murray's legacy, visit

This article appeared in print with the headline "Relentless Justice"


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