The Reverend Pauli Murray, 1910-1985

Video featuring Pauli Murray, from
TV series "On the Road", 1985

Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation, helped me to rid myself of vestiges of shame over my racial history, and gave me an unequivocal understanding that equality of treatment was my birthright and not something to be earned. I would be no less afraid to challenge the system of racial segregation, but the heightened significance of my cause would impel me to act in spite of my fears.
Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray, a descendant of a North Carolina slave and slave owner, was an early and committed civil rights activist and the first African American female priest ordained by the Episcopal Church. She was baptized Annie Pauline Murrary by the Reverend George F. Bragg in 1911. After her parents’ death, Pauli moved from Baltimore to North Carolina at the age of three to live with her grandparents and aunt after whom she was named.

Murray graduated from Hunter College in 1933. After a campaign to gain admission into the all-white University of North Carolina law school in 1938, she was denied entry due to her race. The next year she took a job with the Workers’ Defense League and went onto graduate from Howard University Law School in 1944. She was denied admission to Harvard University for an advanced law degree because of her gender. In 1945 Murray successfully completed her Masters of Law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Her master's thesis was The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment, which Thurgood Marshal labeled the “bible” for civil rights lawyers. Twenty years later, she was the first African American to be awarded a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale University Law School.

Committed to dismantling barriers of race, Murray was also dedicated to the feminist cause. She was appointed to serve on the civil and political rights committee of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) in 1961. In the mid-1960s, Murray began serving as a member of the Equality Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) working to revise the ACLU policy on sex discrimination. She was also a founding member of the civil rights group of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Murray saw the civil rights and women’s movements as intertwined and believed that black women had a vested interest in the women’s movement. Keenly aware of racial discrimination, Murray was unaware of sex discrimination until she attended Howard, a predominantly black university. According to Murray, there wasn’t any racial discrimination at Howard, “so the sex discrimination stood out in bold relief.”

Murray taught at Benedict College in North Carolina, in Ghana, and at Brandeis University until the death of her close friend Renee Barlau in 1973. After being denied the right to administer last rites to Barlau, Murray felt compelled to enter the priesthood. She began her studies at General Theological Seminary in 1976 and was ordained at the National Cathedral the following year. She served at Church of the Atonement in Washington D.C. from 1979 to 1981 and at Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore until her death in 1985.

Her books include States' Laws on Race and Color (1951), the family memoir Proud Shoes: Story of an American Family (1956), The Constitution and Government of Ghana (1961), Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970), and the personal memoir Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987).

Her personal papers are located at the Schlesinger Library, and her Leadership Gallery photo is provided courtesy of the Schlesinger Library. [Sources]