Pauli Murray Was a Civil Rights Trailblazer

Troy R. Saxby

Organizer, lawyer, professor, priest — Pauli Murray held many titles throughout her life. But as a black lesbian with a burning hatred of oppression, her goal was always the same: to challenge discrimination and topple the brutal hierarchies of US society.

Pauli Murray. (Carolina Digital Library and Archives / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On April 17, 1943, three African-American students from Howard University, a historically black college, entered the Little Palace Cafeteria in Washington, DC. Despite being denied service, the students remained, reading from their schoolbooks. Three more Howard students then entered the restaurant, were denied service, refused to leave, and began reading as well. Three more students, then three more students — bringing the total to twelve — repeated the process, while seven additional students formed a picket outside the restaurant with signs like “We Die Together — Why Can’t We Eat Together?” Nearly two decades before the sit-ins of the 1960s, in the throes of World War II, the students were launching a full-frontal attack on Jim Crow.

As a planner and participant in the protest, Pauli Murray brought to bear her experience organizing with left-wing groups like the Socialist Party–affiliated Workers Defense League, sharing her insights with students (one of whom would go on to become a leading organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality, which helped organize the 1963 March on Washington). For Murray — a black lesbian woman — it was an early attempt in a lifetime of efforts to challenge discrimination and topple the brutal hierarchies of US society.

Born in 1910 and raised in the Jim Crow South, Murray accomplished an impressive series of “firsts” before her death in 1985. She became the first black deputy attorney general in California in 1946, the first African American to receive a law doctorate from Yale Law School in 1965, the first professor to teach African-American and women’s studies courses at Brandeis University in 1968, and the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.

Murray managed these feats in spite of — or, perhaps, because of — the challenges she faced. She often intentionally set goals barred by racist and sexist prejudice, intertwining her professional career with her lifelong activism. Along the way, she elevated women among the male-dominated Civil Rights Movement and black women among the largely white feminist movement. Sadly, due to the overwhelming homophobia she faced throughout her life, she struggled to openly embrace her sexuality and push for gay rights, which she quietly folded into the broader category of human rights.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Troy R. Saxby, author of the new biography Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life, about Murray’s extraordinary career, politics, and sexuality. Their conversation has been lightly edited for brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

As you chronicle in Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life, Murray proceeded from activist to organizer to lawyer to professor to priest. What do you think motivated her eclectic career path?

Troy R. Saxby

As a black woman, and a fiery, ambitious person, Murray had to cut a path through difficult terrain. The University of North Carolina denied her admission because of her race, and Harvard Law School rejected her because she was a woman — which I think indicates what Murray was up against and why she became an activist. Even when Murray broke through educational and employment barriers, it was difficult — if not impossible — for her to feel at ease when she was often the only African American or woman in the place.

Conversely, accepting less high-profile roles often left her feeling unfulfilled and concerned that she was shirking a personal responsibility to prove the capabilities of African Americans and women. These feelings of being on trial and having to prove herself seemed ever present and contributed greatly, I think, to her spending a few years at most in one job. To badly stretch the metaphor, Murray wanted to pave career paths that others could follow.

Arvind Dilawar

You bring up Murray’s aversion to accepting or remaining in low-profile roles, which reminds me of the “uplift ideology” she and her family subscribed to.

Troy R. Saxby

Jim Crow was very much in the ascendency during Murray’s childhood in North Carolina; few means of resisting it existed that weren’t suicidal. One way to foster pride and counter all-pervasive racism was to prove African Americans were in no way intellectually or morally inferior or degraded, particularly through educational achievements and exemplary personal conduct. “Uplifting the race” could mean things like building schools — Murray’s grandfather established several schools in the decades after the Civil War.

Less positively, the emphasis on respectability, which often meant emulating middle-class white values, could serve to accentuate class-like divides within black communities — Murray’s grandparents were as financially disadvantaged as many of their neighbors, but were still quite judgmental toward them based on the perception that the neighbors weren’t as cultured or dignified.

Arvind Dilawar

How would you describe Murray’s politics? In your book, you talk about her early career working with left-wing organizations, such as the Negro People’s Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which supported refugees from fascist Spain, but she also harbored animosity toward the Communist Party.

Troy R. Saxby

Murray was quite radical as a young adult living through the Depression. She despised the Communist Party USA — particularly their call for the creation of an African-American nation in the southern United States — but she really wanted to visit the Soviet Union and joined other radical left-wing groups for brief periods during the 1930s and early 1940s. Outside this period, her views generally tended to fall between socialist and liberal, depending on the period and context.

Murray felt pressure to distance herself from leftist groups and causes during the McCarthy era. She certainly downplayed her earlier radicalism when background loyalty checks became a requirement for many jobs, though it didn’t help her. “Past associations” cost her several job opportunities, and when combined with racism and sexism, this severely limited her prospects.

Murray’s aspirations often seem quite conservative to my mind: she wanted to attend prestigious schools and get good jobs. These aspirations were applauded in young white American men, but because she was a black woman, her oppressors viewed her aims as downright subversive — so Murray was often compelled into more militant action than she might otherwise have taken. She defended herself from McCarthyism, quite reasonably, by pointing out that she’d rarely been welcomed in circles other than radical leftist ones.

Arvind Dilawar

Murray was involved in civil disobedience, including sit-ins to desegregate buses and restaurants, decades before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Where did her ideas and plans for direct action come from? How did she inspire the next generation of activists and organizers?

Troy R. Saxby

The 1930s labor movement provided some inspiration. She studied protest methods at Brookwood Labor College and participated in widespread automobile industry strikes, where sit-down strikes often featured. She also joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and its offshoot, the Congress of Racial Equality. Through these activities she met pacifist activists, such as A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer.

The most important inspiration, however, came from India. A book about the Indian independence struggle called War Without Violence excited her and other black activists about the possibility of using nonviolent civil disobedience to attack segregation. When Murray enrolled to study law at Howard University, she joined with other student activists to launch these incredible lunch counter sit-ins in Washington right in the middle of World War II.

Murray published detailed accounts of the protests in the black press so future campaigns could have a “blueprint.” She also related her experiences to younger campus activists who sought her out in the early 1960s.

Murray became an especially inspirational figure for women activists because she wasn’t afraid to publicly denounce sexism in the movement. She also tried to steer praise for the movement’s gains away from individual men in leadership positions and instead heap it on grassroots activists — many of them women who had worked for generations to bring about the victories.

This is how she viewed her own efforts: as a link in a long chain of resistance to oppression. This thinking helped her keep going in times when the freedom struggle wasn’t so visible and when victories were scarce.

Arvind Dilawar

What was Murray’s perspective on pacifism? On one hand, she advocated nonviolent civil disobedience, but on the other, she didn’t condemn black people for defending themselves, such as Odell Waller, who allegedly shot his white landlord and on whose defense Murray worked extensively.

Troy R. Saxby

Murray became interested in nonviolent civil disobedience as a way to advance racial equality around the same time that she became involved in the campaign to save Waller from the death penalty in 1940. She was convinced the young black sharecropper had killed his white landlord in self-defense and therefore strongly opposed his execution. Visiting Waller in his death row cell affirmed her opposition to the death penalty in all cases.

Committing to pacifism wasn’t an easy choice for any African American, and especially not for a person as fiery as Murray. She had an explosive temper and, of course, no shortage of things to feel angry about. I think pacifism appealed to her both as a cornerstone of the protest strategy she thought most likely to succeed and as a way to channel the rage she felt — or at least discipline herself not to let it come out in unproductive ways. She sometimes had to suppress a strong urge to punch people she felt had mistreated her, so it’s no surprise that she didn’t condemn others who weren’t nonviolent.

Indeed, shortly after the Waller campaign she reported sympathetically on the Harlem riots in 1943 — sparked by a policeman killing a black soldier — for the Socialist Party newspaper. Murray felt the same rage that was being vented on the streets.

Arvind Dilawar

How did Murray understand her gender and sexual orientation? In personal correspondence that you reference, she sometimes mentions her “homosexuality,” but in a catch-all way that seems to include both lesbian and transgender connotations.

Troy R. Saxby

Sexual orientation and gender identity were often viewed inseparably in the 1930s and 1940s, when Murray grappled most with these issues. Falling in love with women felt natural to her, and aside from a very brief marriage, she only pursued relationships with women. But widespread homophobia made embracing the label “homosexual” difficult. It did not help that homosexuality was often considered a mental illness — her father had been confined to an “insane asylum,” so any suggestion that she might be mentally ill heightened concerns that she had inherited insanity.

Murray sought explanations for her attractions in biology, which tied into her gender identity concerns. In addition to loving women, Murray preferred wearing pants, kept her hair short, pursued careers, had an aggressive temperament, and could “pass” as a teenage boy, even when she was in her thirties. These things and other feelings led her to suspect she might be male.

Murray convinced several doctors to perform tests to determine if she was intersex, and she pursued hormone therapy to transition to male. The tests found no evidence of male attributes, and she abandoned the quest to transition by the end of the 1940s.

Toward the end of her life, she often avoided identity labels that divided people up into different categories. Instead, she simply called for universal human rights.

Arvind Dilawar

What do you think Murray would make of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement?

Troy R. Saxby

I wonder about this a lot, and how she might have engaged with the #MeToo movement, but I still can’t answer confidently beyond stating obvious things, like she would have been inspired by it and offered nuanced insights into movement dynamics.

Of course, she’d also be appalled that such a movement is still needed. Nearly one hundred years ago, a white man in a position of authority — an asylum attendant — beat her father to death when she was just a child, so the depth of pain and anger she would have felt while watching something like the footage of George Floyd’s murder is beyond my comprehension. During her lifetime she often felt physically unwell, sometimes for extended periods, when she learned about racist violence.

Perhaps the best guide to how Murray might have reacted to today’s events is how she reacted to the lynching of Mack Parker in 1959. At the time Murray had a comfortable job in corporate law, but she took leave to write poetry about the murder and other events, then she chucked the job entirely and went to newly independent Ghana to teach law.

If she were alive today, my guess is that she would try to channel pain into something creative and probably sacrifice her own security to try something new and surprising, something daring and brave, in a renewed effort to bring about greater justice.