Anna (Pauli) Murray

Anna (Pauli) Murray

Anna (Pauli) Murray was born in Baltimore on 20th November, 1910. Her mother, Agnes Murray died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914. Her father, William Murray, was a graduate of Howard University and taught in a local high school. He suffered from the long-term effects of typhoid fever and eventually was confined to Crownsville State Hospital where he died in 1923.

Anna and her five brothers and sisters were raised by relatives in Baltimore. Eventually she went to live with her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald, a school teacher. After graduating from Hillside High School at the head of her class, she moved to New York City. Murray attended Hunter College and financed her studies with various jobs. However, after the Wall Street Crash, unable to find work, Murray was forced to abandon her studies.

In the 1930s Murray worked for the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and as a teacher in the New York City Remedial Reading Project. She also had articles and poems published in various magazines. This included her novel, Angel of the Desert, that was serialized in the Carolina Times.

Murray also became involved in the civil rights movement. In 1938 she began a campaign to enter the all-white University of North Carolina. With the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Murray's case received national publicity. However, it was not until 1951 that Floyd McKissick became the first African American to be accepted by the University of North Carolina. During this campaign she developed a life-long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray

A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Murray also became involved in attempts to end segregation on public transport and this resulted in her arrest and imprisonment in March 1940 for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Virginia.

In 1941 Murray enrolled at the Howard University law school with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer. The following year she joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Members of CORE were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.

In 1943 Murray published two important essays on civil rights, Negroes Are Fed Up in Common Sense and an article about the Harlem race riot in the socialist newspaper, New York Call. Her most famous poem on race relations, Dark Testament, was also written in that year.

After Murray graduated from Howard University in 1944 she went to Harvard University on a Rosenwald Fellowship. However, after the award had been announced, Harvard Law School rejected her because of her gender. Murray went to the University of California where she received a degree in law. Her master's thesis was The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment.

Murray moved to New York City and provided support to the growing civil rights movement. Her book, States' Laws on Race and Color, was published in 1951. Thurgood Marshall, head of the legal department at the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), described the book as the Bible for civil rights lawyers.

In the early 1950s Murray, like many African Americans involved in the civil rights movement, suffered from McCarthyism. In 1952 she lost a post at Cornell University because the people who had supplied her references: Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Philip Randolph, were considered to be too radical. She was told in a letter that they decided to give "one hundred per cent protection" to the university "in view of the troublous times in which we live".

In 1956 Murray published Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,, a biography of her grandparents, and their struggle with racial prejudice. In 1960 Murray travelled to Ghana to explore her African cultural roots. When she returned President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Civil and Political Rights.

In the early 1960s Murray worked closely with Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King but was critical of the way that men dominated the leadership of these civil rights organizations. In August, 1963, she wrote to Randolph and pointed out that she had: "been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions."

In 1977 Murray became the first African American woman to become a Episcopal priest. Pauli Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh on 1st July, 1985. Her autobiography Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage was published posthumously in 1987.

Primary Sources

(1) In her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, Pauli Murray wrote about the experiences of her grandparents living in Orange County after the civil war.

In the early days of their marriage, when my grandparents were struggling to establish a foothold, Grandmother often stayed alone in the farm near Chapel Hill. Grandfather was working in his brickyard in Durham, twelve miles away, until he was able to build the family home there, and their children were often in Durham helping him. It was a time when the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County sought to run coloured farmers off their land, and Grandmother's isolated cabin in the woods was an easy target.

Late at night she would be awakened by the thudding of horses' hooves as night riders, brandishing torches and yelling like banshees, swept into the clearing and rode round and round her cabin, churning the earth outside her door. She never knew when they might set fire to the place, burning her to death inside, and some nights she was so terrified that she would get out of bed in the middle of the night, creep through the woods to the roadway, and trudge the twelve miles to Durham, preferring the dark, lonely but open road to the risk of being trapped at the farm.

(2) Pauli Murray, letter to President Franklin Roosevelt (December, 1938)

Negroes are the most oppressed and most neglected section of your population. 12,000,000 of your citizens have to endure insults, injustices, and such degradation of the spirit that you would believe impossible. The un-Christian, un-American conditions in the South make it impossible for me and other young Negroes to live there and continue our faith in the ideals of democracy and Christianity. We are as much political refugees from the South as any of the Jews in Germany.

Do you feel as we do, that the ultimate test of democracy in the United States will be the way in which it solves its Negro problem? Have you raised your voice loud enough against the burning of our people? Why has our government refused to pass anti-lynching legislation? And why is it that the group of congressmen so opposed to the passing of this legislation are part and parcel of the Democratic Party of which you are leader?

(3) A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pauli Murray and her friend, Adelene McBean, became involved in attempts to end segregation on public transport and this resulted in their arrest and imprisonment in March 1940 for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Virginia.

At Petersburg, several white passengers got off and others moved forward leaving two rows of empty seats directly in front of us. Outside the bus, about twenty picnic-bound Negroes laden with baskets of food lined up to get aboard. The driver paid no attention to us and busied himself with tickets and baggage. We realized that if we were going to change to a more comfortable position we had better do it before the crowd got on and filled up the entire rear, so we moved one row forward. The cushion of the window seat had fallen down and we could not adjust it, so we moved forward another row. We were now in the fourth row from the back seat, still behind all the white passengers. At this point the driver, whose name was Frank W. Morris, as we learned later, looked back and saw us. He yelled from the front that we would have to move back. When we showed no inclination to comply, he threatened arrest.

Adelene McBean told the driver she had paid her money like every other passenger and she had her rights. It was clear that Morris was not listening; he was aware only that we had challenged his authority and ignored his order. He stormed off the bus, which was now electric with tension, but we could expect no support from either front or rear. The white passengers acted as if it was none of their affair and the few black passengers in the rear murmured among themselves but dared not interfere.

(4) Pauli Murray, Common Ground (Winter 1945)

Nobody gave me my freedom. I owe it to no political party or the goodwill of any group. I inherited it. Some of my forefathers fought for it at Appomattox, Petersburg, and Richmond. Others toiled for it in Carolina tobacco fields, paying their masters dollar for dollar, and bought it. Others paid for it with their health, sanity, and their lives, jumping overboard from slave vessels or lying in swamps and crawling through the night into the shelter of the Underground Railroad. Others pulled a "mass strike" when the Union armies invaded the Confederacy and helped disintegrate the labor force of the rebellious South. The Proclamation of Emancipation which Lincoln signed in 1863 was but the historical and documentary recognition of an accomplished fact.

As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind. And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, "I must confess I love this cultured hell which tests my strength." Loving it as I do, I am determined that my country shall take her place among nations as a moral leader of mankind. No law which imprisons my body or custom which wounds my spirit can stop me.

That my country may accomplish this great task of history, I must make myself worthy to be called an American. I would bring shame and disgrace upon the United States' flag if I tolerated for one moment any practice of discrimination, segregation, or prejudice against any human being because of an accident of birth which has determined race, color, sex, or nationality and helped to shape his or her creed.

For history moves in strange and unpremeditated ways. But for an error in navigation or a perverse trade wind the pioneers who reached Massachusetts would have landed in Virginia. As it was, the Virginia cousins became great slave-holders and slave breeders. The Massachusetts cousins became great slave traders and great Abolitionists. The North Carolina cousins became small cells of Unionism within a slaveholding state. The Pennsylvania cousins became Quakers and operators of the dramatic Underground Railroad.

Many of these ancestors of the 19th century had the vision of men who saw that a country cannot exist half-slave and half-free. They saw the abolition of slavery as the logical extension of the 18th- century Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The record of that vision is scattered on historical markers by gullies and streams in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and up and down the south- eastern coast. They knew of no other way to destroy the slave mart save through sword and fire and blood.

But they have left for me and my contemporaries of the 20th century the task of destroying the incidents of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. The Civil War was an inadequate answer to the slavery issue. Families were hopelessly divided among themselves; brothers and cousins fought on opposite sides of the lines. Spiritual and psychic wounds still fester in the Southland. The virus of an understandable hatred, the hatred of a conquered and expropriated people, has spread to every corner of our country. Its tentacles will engulf us unless we reach the heart of the monster.

(5) In her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, Pauli Murray wrote about the experiences of McCarthyism.

Under the Internal Security Act of 1950, which Congress passed over President Truman's veto, millions of Americans in and out of government were subjected to loyalty clearance programs, which included intensive investigations into their lives reaching back to childhood. Mere membership at some time in the past in an organization listed by the attorney general as a "Communist front" was significant to cause one to be discharged from government service as a "bad security risk". Reputations were destroyed overnight, and professional people were blacklisted on the basis of rumour, gossip, and other unsupported charges of subversive activities.

(6) Pauli Murray, letter to Philip Randolph (21st August, 1963)

I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. It is indefensible to call a national march on Washington and send out a Call which contains the name of not a single woman leader.

The time has come to say to you quite candidly, Mr. Randolph, that "tokenism" is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes, and that I have not devoted the greater part of my adult life to the implementation of human rights to now condone any policy which is not inclusive.

(7) In her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, Pauli Murray wrote about her reactions to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

By strange coincidence, when the shattering news of Dr. King's slaying came over the radio in the evening of April, 1968, I happened to be reading the final chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and had just finished a passage written shortly before Malcolm's own assassination in 1965. Malcolm had observed: "And in the racial climate in this country today, it is anybody's guess which of the 'extremes' in approach to the black man's problems might personally meet a fatal catastrophe first - 'non-violent' Dr. King, or so-called 'violent' me."

The prophetic power of Malcolm X's reflection was staggering. I had not been a passionate admirer of Dr. King himself because I felt he had not recognized the role of women in the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks was not even invited to join Dr. King's party when he went abroad to receive the Nobel Peace Prize), but I was passionately devoted to his cause. Beneath the numbness I felt after that fatal evening was the realization that the foremost advocate of nonviolence as a way of life - my own cause - was stilled and those who had embraced Dr. King's religious commitment to nonviolence were called upon to keep his tradition alive and to advance the work for which he gave his life.