Pauli Murray speaking passionately.
Pauli Murray delivering a speech.

This Day in History: November 20th


Saint Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist, poet, lawyer and Episcopal priest, broke many barriers for Black and queer women in their life and laid the groundwork for landmark civil rights litigation.

Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 20, 1910. Their mother Agnes Murray lost her life to a cerebral hemorrhage. Their father William Murray, who struggled with depression, spent Pauli’s early years in Crownsville State Hospital, where his life ended at the hands of a white guard in 1923. Orphaned, Murray moved to Durham, North Carolina where they were raised by their aunt and grandparents.

Murray received national publicity, catching the attention of then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, during their battle for admission to the white-only University of North Carolina. Murray was denied access to the school, in one of many struggles in their lifetime to rise above discriminatory barriers.

During their time at Howard University, Murray studied to become a civil rights lawyer to end segregation and destroy Jim Crow.

“I had never thought of myself in terms of a woman. I had thought of myself in preparing to be a civil rights lawyer for this cause,” said Murray in an interview with Assistant Professor Genna Rae McNeil for the Southern Oral History Program.

At Howard University, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the discrimination they faced as a Black woman—a form of what would currently be called intersectionality. In their quest to prove segregation was unconstitutional, Murray wrote a paper challenging the legal doctrine of “separate but equal,” which Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP cited as one of the documents crucial to their litigation in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating, vindicated. And what I say very often is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” said Murray in a clip featured on the Backstory podcast.

Murray laid the foundation for intersectionality activism and championed successful civil rights arguments. But as is often the case with pioneers, Murray was both ahead of their time and right where they needed to be to create a vision of a better future.

Murray struggled with gender identity throughout their life. They were rejected access to masculinizing hormones several times, and photos and written documents discovered by historians suggest that Murray’s lived experience parallels what would today be considered transgender/transmasculine experience. There is no consensus in the academic world as to what pronouns Murray should be addressed with.

Nonetheless, Murray undoubtedly contributed their life to the advancement of Black and queer women, and their legacy is a testament to the power of intersecting identities.

“I am saying that we must accept the challenge of our existence. Our existence being that of a rejected, unwanted, persecuted minority and that in a sense, we cannot accept this,” said Murray in the McNeil interview. “We must make our contribution to history.”

You May Also Like