Advocate And Activist: Pauli Murray's Pursuit Of Equality

Advocate And Activist: Pauli Murray's Pursuit Of Equality

5:20am Mar 15, 2018
Pauli Murray shown Dec. 31, 1946. (AP Photo)

Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, another woman refused to give up her seat. Pauli Murray was a civil rights and women’s rights advocate and a member of the African-American LGBTQ community who grew up in Durham, North Carolina.

Murray’s legal work on gender equity and civil rights influenced Supreme Court Justices such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall.

WFDD's Bethany Chafin spoke with author and filmmaker Anna Fields about Murray and her legacy for our latest installment of “Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women.”

Interview Highlights

On Murray's educational path, which was dictated by both her race and gender:

When she graduated from high school in the latter part of the Great Depression, she wanted to go to UNC-Chapel Hill for college, but they turned her down because she was an African-American. She instead went to Hunter College, and she graduated from Hunter in 1936. So, after she had been doing some work in civil rights and working for the Workers' Defense League, she really wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. In 1942, she went to Howard Law School. She'd wanted to go to Harvard Law School, but they also denied her, not on the basis of her race but on the basis of her being female. They only had a certain number of slots available for females and apparently those were all filled.

On Murray's term, "Jane Crow":

It's sort of a feminist notion. Jane Crow was her play on words for the specifically gender-based aspect of Jim Crow. Jim Crow, as we commonly understand it, is racially based discrimination towards people of color. Jane Crow in Pauli Murray's estimation was a circumstance where women of color specifically are discriminated against on the basis of just their womanhood...[Murray] once asked, "what does it profit me personally to fight 50 years of my life for the civil rights of Negroes only to have to turn around and fight another 50 years so that I and my sex may benefit from the earlier struggle?"

So I found that to be just really fascinating, and I think it's something that is really missing from the discussion today, where women have so much "bothness." We can be both our race, our culture, our creed, our religion and women.

On Murray and the Fourteenth Amendment:

Essentially the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the citizens of the United States the right to due process and equal protection under the law. So, the first half of that basically means, in brief summary, that you have the right to be processed by the law rather than just simply the victim of mob justice. You have the right to certain guaranteed rights to a lawyer and to jury trials - a jury of your peers. The other right that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees us is equal protection under the law. Now, Pauli was sort of the first person to suggest in a legal brief of hers at Howard that that equal protection is the basis for gender equality. Women were entitled to be protected by the law equally to men.

On why more people don't know the story of Pauli Murray:

Well, I think she doesn't fit into our clean cut ideas of what a civil rights leader looks like or sounds like because she was a member of the LGBTQIA community, although it wasn't called that then. You know, with the notable exception of Rosa Parks, we sort of see all of the civil rights leaders as being people who look like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. And while those men obviously played extremely notable roles in the civil rights movement there were also many, many people like Pauli Murray who fought in many other ways that were intersectional.

Listen every Thursday in March during Morning Edition and All Things Considered to hear Bethany and Anna with the series, "Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women."

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