Pauli Murray (Anna Pauline Murray)

Sarah Azaransky



1910 (November 20):  Anna Pauline Murray was born to Agnes Fitzgerald and William Murray in Baltimore, Maryland.

1914:  Murray moved to Durham, North Carolina.

1923:  Murray graduated at the top of her class at Hillside High School in Durham.

1933:  Murray earned a B.A. from Hunter College in New York City.

1930s:  Murray remained in New York City and worked a series of jobs, including for the Works Progress Administration. She adopted the name “Pauli,” a gender-ambivalent name to better reflect what she called her “boy-girl” personality.

1938:  Murray applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to do graduate work in sociology. Her application was rejected because UNC at that time did not accept African American students.

1940:  Murray was arrested for sitting in the front section of a bus in Petersburg, Virginia.

1940–1942:  Murray lived in the Harlem Ashram.

1943, 1944:  Murray organized sit-ins of segregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.

1944:  Murray earned a J.D. from Howard University School of Law.

1945:  Murray earned a Masters of Law from Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California, Berkeley.

1951:  Murray published States’ Laws on Race and Color, a 700-page book of each state’s statutes relating to racial segregation. The Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling made the book obsolete.

1960:  Murray was senior lecturer in law at the University of Ghana in Accra; she co-authored the first textbook on the new Ghanaian Constitution.

1962:  Murray returned to the United States and accepted a position with President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, for the committee working on civil and political rights.

1965:  Murray earned a doctorate in law from Yale Law School.

1966:  Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, along with Betty Friedan and others.

1968:  Murray became a professor of law and politics at Brandeis University.

1973:  Murray became a student at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in New York City before the Episcopal Church had approved women as candidates for ordination.

1976:  Upon completion of her Master of Divinity degree she was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church.

1976:  The Episcopal Church’s General Convention approved the ordination of women as priests.

1977 (January 8):  Murray was among the first women, and the first African American woman, to be officially ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

1982:  Murray was forced to retire, as a result of the Episcopal Church’s mandatory retirement age.

1985 (July 1):  Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Pauli Murray (1910–1985) [Image at right] was a lawyer, professor, Episcopal priest, and a significant figure in the civil rights and women’s movements, who made substantial contributions to American democratic and religious life

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 20, 1910. When she was three years old, her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage after Murray and her siblings by himself, young Pauli was sent to Durham, North Carolina to be and, when Murray’s father could not look raised by her maternal grandparents and her aunt. Having graduated at the top of her high school class, Murray opted to take an additional year of high school in New York City. Murray earned a place at Hunter College, a public university in New York City, from which she graduated in 1933. [Image at right] At the height of the Great Depression, Murray struggled to find reliable work, and worked a series of odd jobs. At the same time, Murray immersed herself in the political and artistic worlds of Harlem and built a reputation as a bold young activist.

In 1938, she waged a public campaign to gain admission to the University of North Carolina’s graduate school, which was then still segregated. Her application was ultimately rejected, but not before a public outcry and exchange with Eleanor Roosevelt, which inaugurated a friendship that continued until Roosevelt’s death.

Murray’s application to UNC signaled her commitment to practice direct action against Jim Crow segregation in the South and anti-black racism throughout the country. In the 1940s, Murray was part of a cadre of black Christian activists who studied the independence movement in India and innovated tactics that would later galvanize a nationwide movement, including integrating buses, organizing sit-ins, and staging multi-city marches.

During this period Murray lived at the Harlem Ashram, a multiracial Christian commune, where residents studied the political action tactics of Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) as they undertook their own activism in the American context. There, they learned about Gandhi’s nonviolent technique for civil resistance, which he termed Satyagraha. A combination of satya, meaning “truth,” and agraha, meaning “holding firmly to,” Satyagraha was Gandhi’s term for the nonviolent resistance campaigns he led in South Africa and India (Jack 1956:xix). James Farmer (1920–1999), co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and later leader of the 1961 Freedom Rides, also lived at the Ashram; Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), best known as the primary organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, lived nearby and visited often. Murray, Farmer, and Rustin developed a specifically black Christian pacifism as they practiced nonviolent Gandhian activism in the United States. Their efforts were important precursors to what Rustin later called the “classical” phase of the Civil Rights movement, from 1955 to 1965.

Through employment with the Workers Defense League, Murray encountered Howard Law School professors, who encouraged her to apply. She did, and in 1944 graduated top in her class, in which she was the only woman graduate. Though typically the leading Howard law graduate received a one-year fellowship at Harvard Law School, Harvard would not accept Murray because the school did not then admit women. Despite appeals from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, the school declined to change its policy. Murray enrolled at the University of California’s Boalt Hall instead, where her Master’s thesis about the right to equal opportunity in employment became a landmark text in employment law. It prepared Murray to make significant legal contributions toward expanding equal employment protections for women of color, white women, and men of color.

Murray was a trailblazing feminist lawyer, who was instrumental in having the category of “sex” added to equal protection standards of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. After earning her doctorate of law from Yale Law School in 1965, [Image at right] she became a professor at Brandeis University in 1968, in one of the country’s first American Studies programs.

In the late 1960s, Murray, a lifelong Episcopalian, was engaged in the growing movement in the Episcopal Church in support of women’s ordination. Soon Murray herself was called to the priesthood. In an interview she gave just before she enrolled at General Theological Seminary in New York City, Murray attested: “all these problems of human rights in which I had been involved for most of my adult life, race, sex, all the problems of human rights . . . basically these were moral and spiritual problems.” She felt called to the ministry because “[in] the particular profession to which I had devoted the larger section of my life, law . . . we had reached a point where law could not give us the answers” (quoted in McNeill 1976:89).

She left her tenured position at Brandeis in 1973 to attend General Theological Seminary in New York City, and she completed her Master of Divinity degree in 1976. After turmoil upset the church when three bishops irregularly ordained eleven women deacons as priests in 1974 and another four women deacons as priests in 1975, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women as priests in 1976 (Schjonberg 2014). Pauli Murray became one of the first women (and the first African American woman) to be officially ordained [Image at right] to the Episcopal priesthood in 1977. She was ordained in a group of six women and men on January 8, 1977 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. where “the scene before the altar erupted into happy chaos” as “the nearly 50 priests of the diocese who had joined in the consecration surged forward to embrace the new priests” (Hyer 1977).

Murray’s call to the priesthood had a significant personal component. In 1973, Murray’s romantic partner, Renee Barlow, died after a year-long struggle with cancer. With no priest available as Barlow lay dying, Murray “stood by her bed reading the Twenty-third Psalm” (Murray 1987:424). Providing for Barlow in her hour of greatest need played an important part in leading Murray to the priesthood. Murray described the first time she assisted in a church service, with Renee’s cross around her neck, as “a natural progression from R’s illness and death and my reaction to it, as if one of the meaningful ways to express what she meant to me was to move in this direction and try to express more fully the joys of Christian sisterhood/brotherhood.” Murray concluded, “R—by her life, her love, her example and her death—pointed me toward this road” (Murray 1973).


“Jane Crow,” a neologism Murray developed to describe black women’s experiences within the context of anti-black racism and patriarchal misogyny, shaped Murray’s legal analysis and, later, her theological reflections. In a 1947 article, Murray distinguished Jane Crow from white women’s and black men’s concerns, for “within this framework of ‘male supremacy’ as well as ‘white supremacy,’ the Negro woman finds herself at the bottom of the economic and social scale” (Murray 1947:5).

Murray employed Jane Crow to argue successfully to retain “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evidently to undercut the seriousness of the bill, a representative had added “sex” to the existing equal protection provisions of “race, color, religion, or national origin” outlined in Title VII of the Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment. Though it was expected that “sex” would be removed from the bill when it went to the Senate for further discussion, a group of feminist attorneys saw the addition of the protected category of “sex” as an opportunity to forward women’s legal standing.

Murray wrote a memo to support the addition of “sex” to equal employment standards, in which she argued that race and sex discrimination should not be separated, for they were “only different phases of the fundamental and indivisible issue of human rights” (Murray 1964:9).

After developing a comparison between historical discrimination against African Americans and against women, Murray invoked the experiences of African American women to demonstrate overlapping and interconnected forms of inequality. Murray argued that “these two types of discrimination are so closely intertwined and so similar that Negro women are uniquely qualified to affirm their interrelatedness” (Murray 1964:20).

Murray cautioned against making a false choice between rights for African Americans and rights for women, which would ignore the experiences of those at the intersection of race and sex. Murray’s memo was widely shared among senators and those in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Murray’s efforts paved the way for women of all colors to affirm their right to equal protection in employment.

Murray’s use of Jane Crow to make sophisticated legal arguments that drew from critical reflection on particular experiences of African American women anticipated legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s development of the concept of “intersectionality,” a term she coined to “denote the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences” (Crenshaw 1991:1244).

Murray appealed to Jane Crow again when she was in seminary in the 1970s and she encountered black theology and feminist theology. As she had in entreaties to male leaders of the Civil Rights movement and white leaders of the women’s movement, Murray argued that Black (male) theology and (white) feminist theology are natural allies. She pointed out that until each project realized the strengths of the other, the theological significance of African American women’s experiences would go untheorized. In her seminary thesis, later published as an article, Murray examined how emerging American theologies shared with other liberation theologies a common theme of specifying the “relation between Christian theology and social action;” Murray believed a black feminist theology could be a force “for liberation within the context of the Christian message” (Murray 1978:5).

Murray foresaw a subsequent generation of womanist and black feminist theologians and ethicists by considering tradition, scripture, and human being in light of black women’s experiences in order to enable black women’s and black men’s liberation. Indeed, womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant cites Murray’s article as an early source, which “lays the groundwork for the development of a Black woman’s perspective in theology” (Grant 1989:206).


Since Murray held a variety of jobs in various professions throughout her life, it is difficult to point to ways she engaged consistently in rituals and practices. A close look at one episode, however, demonstrates how Murray’s moral reasoning and her political and religious engagements enabled a particular kind of activism, that is, a practice based in theory.

On Easter weekend in 1940, Pauli Murray was arrested in Petersburg, Virginia for sitting in the front section of a bus. Murray remembered saying to the driver, “‘You haven’t learned a thing in two thousand years.’ I could not forget that it was Easter Even,” the evening before Easter Sunday (Murray 1987:142). She later wrote to a friend, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of satyagraha on the spot,” including petitioning the warden for courteous treatment, explaining what they were doing and why, and talking with fellow prisoners about their strategy (Murray 1987:144).

A black Christian pacifist and civil rights activist, Murray had studied Gandhian nonviolent protest and looked for opportunities to apply it in the United States. When Murray admonished the bus driver that he had not learned a thing in two thousand years, she compared Jim Crow laws to Roman occupation. In Murray’s mind, the bus driver who enforced segregation law was akin to the Roman imperial authorities who had arrested and executed Jesus. Twentieth-century Jim Crow was morally analogous to the Roman occupation of Palestine two millennia ago. But as a Christian pacifist, Murray took heart in Jesus’s example that resistance to occupation was what God required.

Murray made a Christian claim in this context, but she also characterized her response in terms of Satyagraha, a word that Gandhi had developed from Sanskrit to describe his nonviolent resistance campaigns in South Africa and India. When Murray used it to respond to her arrest, she also juxtaposed it to Christianity and put it in an American context. The arrest was an opportunity for her to work out how to employ nonviolent civil disobedience to confront Jim Crow discrimination against African Americans.

Murray’s appeal to Christian nonviolence and Gandhian tactics was emblematic of attempts among pacifists to develop techniques of Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience for the United States. In fact, during this period Murray lived at the Harlem Ashram, a Christian commune that was a project of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical pacifist organization. Daily life included Christian worship, Bible study, and discussion of Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaigns.

The ashram’s programs aimed to provide material support to African Americans who had recently migrated north to find housing and work, to investigate charges of police violence against striking workers, to conduct street performances for neighborhood children, and to make plans for a credit union run by and for the black and Puerto Rican communities.

Murray and other ashramites learned about ahimsa, “harmlessness” or action without violence, and Satyagraha or action on the basis of truth, and devised ways to enact these in Harlem and the broader U.S. context. The ashram developed training courses in “total pacifism,” which included case studies from the independence movement in India and constructive proposals for how to enact “the kingdom [of God] as a way of life,” including for individuals to focus on economic, physical, and time discipline (Azaransky 2017:90).

The ashram closed in 1947 and it is easy to read it as a historical footnote, but the short-lived experiment provided an important training ground for activists: there Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer practiced multi-city marches, restaurant sit-ins, and bus campaigns that would become mainstays of the later civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. (1957–1968). Rustin and Farmer knew King well and shared with him lessons from the early activism of the Harlem Ashram (Azaransky 2017:94–95, 117). Murray connected King to an editor at Harper, which published Stride Toward Freedom (1987), King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott and exemplary of King’s effort to call for movement-building and social transformation in writing (King 1957; Azaransky 2017:254).


Pauli Murray never led an organization, nor was she a movement leader. She served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, and was widely recognized as an authority on nonviolent direct action, but she is not remembered for her leadership roles. This is partly a result of what Murray herself criticized in how the male-led civil rights movement and the white-led feminist movement both undermined leadership of women of color.

Nevertheless, Murray’s influence was wide and deep. As an innovator of nonviolent direct action in the 1940s, she undertook important early experiments with Gandhian nonviolent resistance that enabled a later mass movement for racial justice. Murray’s attention to how black women’s lived experiences reflected prevailing patterns of social power and oppression, encapsulated brilliantly in the Jane Crow category, catalyzed her legal theory and theological perspective.

In her sermons, [Image at right } Murray heralded women’s leadership, and remembered women as integral to the Christian story. In her sermon, “Out of the Wilderness,” Murray described the Egyptian slavewoman Hagar (Genesis 21:8-21), mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, as “a strong, proud, independent woman of the desert, conscious of her own worth who feels herself equal of her mistress, and as the innocent victim of Sarah’s jealousy.” Murray depicted Hagar as worthy of receiving God’s word and of bearing God’s promise: “Through her faith and determination, this heroic woman found her way out of the wilderness and led her son to freedom and dignity” (Murray 1974:4).

Murray connected Hagar’s story with examples of African American women, who, like Hagar, found a way out of the wilderness; women like Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), Sojourner Truth (d. 1883), and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955). While Murray developed a genealogy of African American women that reached back to Hagar, she recognized at the same time that American history is incomplete, for there are many black women’s stories that we will never know. This recognition was doubly feminist. On the one hand, she lamented that many women’s stories will remain anonymous due to an incomplete historical record, and, on the other hand, she offered examples of black women’s leadership of and participation in liberation movements as the rule, rather than an exception.


Pauli Murray did not reflect publicly on her sexual and gender identities in published writing or in professional work during her lifetime, but she did carefully preserve a cache of letters and photographs to be made available to the public in her archived papers. Her own records show how, in the 1930s and 1940s, she experimented with hormone treatments and cross-dressing in order to live as a man, and that throughout her life, Murray’s romantic and love relationships were with people who identified as women.

Contemporary scholars may be tempted to identify Murray as lesbian or transgender, but historian Doreen Drury cautions that Murray’s experience of her own gender and sexuality signal a rejection of fixed categories, and her conviction that integrity of self exceeds all categories (Drury 2013). Murray’s “experimentation” (a term she used) with categories of gender and sexuality was also an effort to elude any fixed category.

Murray did not elaborate a theological account of sexuality, but her sermons and letters point to a place for sexuality in her theological considerations of identity. When in sermons from the late 1970s and early 1980s Murray listed identity categories, such as race, gender, or class, she often included sexuality as well. In a letter to friends, Murray talked about her vision for her ministry, that “we bring our total selves to God, our sexuality, our joyousness, our foolishness, etc. etc. I’m out to make Christianity a joyful thing” (Murray 1977a:2).

Indeed, Murray appealed to her whole self to signal God’s work of reconciliation:

It was my destiny to be the descendent of slaveowners as well as slaves,
to be of mixed ancestry, to be biologically and psychologically integrated in a world where the separation of the races was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States as the fundamental law of the Southland. My entire life’s quest has led me ultimately to Christ in whom there is not East or West, no North or South, no Black or White, no Red or Yellow, no Jew or Gentile, no Islam or Buddha, no Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic, no male or female. There is no Black Christ nor White Christ nor Red Christ—although these images may have transitory cultural value. There is only Christ, the Spirit of love and reconciliation, the Healer of deep psychic wounds, drawing us all closer to that Goal of perfection which links us to God our creator and to eternity (urray 1977b:26-27).


Image #1: Pauli Murray. Carolina Digital Library and Archives.
Image #2: Portrait of Pauli Murray, c. 1925–35.
Image #3: Pauli Murray, Senior Fellow, Yale Law School. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University.
Image #4: Pauli Murray (center) at her ordination. Schlesinger Archive.
Image #5: Pauli Murray at the pulpit.Image #6: Pauli Murray in 1974. Photo by Barton Silverman for New York Times.
Image #7: Students at one of the murals of Pauli Murray in Durham, North Carolina.


Azaransky, Sarah. 2017. This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:1241–99.

Drury, Doreen. 2013. “Boy-Girl, Imp, Priest: Pauli Murray and the Limits of Identity.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29:142–47.

Grant, Jacquelyn. 1989. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Jack, Homer, ed. 1956. The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hyer, Margorie. 1977. “Episcopal Priests Ordained,” Washington Post, January 9. Accessed from on 5 November 2018.

King, Martin Luther Jr. 1957. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Brothers.

McNeill, Genna Rae. 1976. “Interview with Pauli Murray.” Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Murray, Pauli. 1987. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Harper & Row.

Murray, Pauli. 1978. “Black Theology and Feminist Theology: A Comparative View.” Anglican Theological Review 60:3–24.

Murray, Pauli. 1977a. “Dear Jim and Mary.” Pauli Murray Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Murray, Pauli. 1977b. “Healing and Reconciliation.” Pauli Murray Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Murray, Pauli. 1974. “Out of the Wilderness.” Pauli Murray Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Murray, Pauli. 1973. Journal entry, July 8. Pauli Murray Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Murray, Pauli. 1964. “Memorandum in Support of Retaining the Amendment to H.R. 7152, Title VII (Equal Employment Opportunity) to Prohibit Discrimination in Employment Because of Sex.” 14 April. Pauli Murray Papers. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Murray, Pauli. 1947. “Why Negro Girls Stay Single.” Negro Digest 5:5–7.

Schjonberg, Mary Frances. 2014. “Interactive Timeline of the History of Women’s Ordination.” Episcopal News Service, July 28. Accessed from on 5 November 2018.

Post Date:
7 November 2018




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