Pauli Murray

A Trailblazer in the Law, Activist Against Racial and Sex Discrimination, and the First Black Woman Ordained an Episcopal Priest

Profile Summary by Sonia Kumar

Pauli Murray was a Maryland-born Black scholar, lawyer, activist and writer whose work shaped landmark civil rights cases and movements, yet whose profound contributions to the advancement of civil rights remain largely unacknowledged.  Murray was an architect of some of the most significant civil rights arguments in recent American history, including key arguments in Brown v. Board used by Thurgood Marshall to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to women in Reed v Reed, used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a young lawyer in briefs on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union before the U.S. Supreme Court, among many others. 

Born in Baltimore in 1910 and later raised in Durham, North Carolina by extended family, Pauli Murray was a Black person whose writings reflected feeling misgendered as a woman.* The deep pride in Blackness instilled by Murray’s family and the intersection of Murray’s identities converged and shaped Murray’s life’s choices and vision for human rights. 

As a young person, Murray refused to acquiesce to the “separate but equal” doctrine and actively avoided participating in it whenever possible; for example, choosing to ride bicycles instead of segregated public buses.  Murray sought admission to better-resourced white schools rather than attend a segregated colleges and graduate schools, but was unable to gain legal assistance to do so.  Murray’s letter-writing campaign to gain admission to graduate programs at the all-white University of North Carolina did not result in admission, but did lead to a lifelong correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt.  

Murray challenged anti-Black racism through civil disobedience and media campaigns well before the height of the mainstream civil rights movement.  In 1940, 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycotts, Pauli Murray and a friend refused to move to a Blacks-only section of a segregated bus in Virginia; because they were charged under a disorderly conduct statute instead of state segregation laws, the case fizzled out.  The following year, Murray enrolled in Howard Law school; Murray was the only woman in the entire class.  While in law school, Murray joined the Congress of Racial Equality, organized sit-ins at D.C. lunch counters, and worked vigorously to establish equal rights for Black Americans. 

Later, a professor at Howard would share with Thurgood Marshall a paper Murray wrote as a student on how to attack Plessy v. Ferguson; several of Murray’s arguments were used in the seminal case Brown v. Board of Education.  Murray’s prolific writings included several books, including a book documenting race-based laws in every state that the ACLU distributed widely, and Thurgood Marshall referred to as a “bible” of the civil rights movement.  

Murray graduated at the top of the 1944 Howard Law class; although tradition was that the valedictorian at Howard was granted admission to Harvard Law, Harvard refused to admit women and thus Murray was denied.  Based on these and other experiences, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the compounding harms of race and sex discrimination against Black women.  

Murray also is regarded among the first to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment could be used to challenge discrimination on the basis of sex; indeed, Murray’s contributions to this theory were so significant that Ruth Bader Ginsberg, then a law professor writing for the ACLU, credited Murray as an honorary co-author in briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, the landmark case establishing that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited sex discrimination.  Murray served on the board of directors for the national ACLU and was also one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, but became frustrated with the organization’s lack of engagement with Black women.

Murray achieved so many “firsts” that it is impossible to capture them all, and they only scratch the surface of Murray’s contributions to the law and the advancement of justice, but among them: in 1965, Murray was the first Black person to obtain Doctorate of Law from Yale Law School, and in 1977, Murray was the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.  The Church later designated Murray a saint. 

Murray’s legacy is so much more than the scholarship that influenced key legal arguments shaping the civil rights movement.  Murray’s life and work provide a powerful reminder that in nearly every instance, the first people to make the “winning” argument are those who are most directly affected by an injustice, but sometimes they are just too far ahead of their time.  In the documentary film My Name is Pauli Murray, Justice Ginsburg observes: “We were not inventing something new.  We were saying the same things Pauli had said years earlier at a time when society was not prepared to listen.”

* Some scholars of Murray’s life believe Murray would identify as trans or non-binary today.  Out of respect for Murray’s experiences, this article avoids designating pronouns for Murray, but refers to Murray as a woman when relevant to the discrimination Murray experienced.


For further learning: Pauli Murray’s autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage; Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray; documentary My Name is Pauli Murray.

Ms. Kumar is the Senior Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.