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Celebrating Pauli Murray


July 7, 2019 — Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Alison Quin

Today’s Readings:

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Celebrating Pauli Murray

Today we celebrate the feast day of a truly remarkable person:  Pauli Murray, lawyer, activist, scholar, poet and priest.

Like the three women in the movie Hidden Figures, Pauli Murray’s life has been hidden in the shadows of history due to her gender and race.

But as today’s gospel says, nothing is hidden except to be disclosed. Nothing is secret except to be revealed.   All lives are known to God, and the good work that people do is never lost or forgotten by God. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.

Decades after Pauli Murray’s death in 1985, people are learning more and more about her life.  Her writings have been republished and new books about her life have been written.

She is a person for our time, a source of inspiration and encouragement for all who long for justice, equality and dignity for all people.

Her life was extremely challenging from the beginning.  Her mother died when she was 4.  Her father, who was a high school teacher, suffered the after-effects of typhoid fever and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. He died when Pauli was 12—beaten to death by a guard at the hospital. Pauli and her siblings were farmed out to relatives.

But Pauli faced other challenges in addition to the tragedy of losing her parents.  She was African American in the era of Jim Crow.  She was a woman in a man’s world—her choice of careers, law and ministry, were male dominated and she was often denied opportunities because she was female.  She was transgender in an era when there wasn’t even a word for that—she suffered privately from what she called her “inverted sexuality,” her sense of being a man in a woman’s body.  She had several hospitalizations when her suffering became too much for her to bear.

Nevertheless, she persevered and accomplished extraordinary things.  She once wrote: “What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.”  But the truth is that she had both extraordinary ability and incredible persistence.

Her family believed in education—the aunt who raised her, Pauline Fitzgerald, was also a public school teacher.  After graduating from high school, Pauli moved to NYC and worked her way through Hunter College.   While still in college, she published a book and several articles, and taught remedial reading in the NYC public schools.

She became involved with the NAACP when she applied to the University of North Carolina in 1938.  At the time, UNC was for whites only.  The NAACP took her case, and during the campaign, Pauli became life long friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.  She became involved with other desegregation efforts as well in the late 30’s and was arrested several times for refusing to move to the back of a bus and lunch counter sit-ins. It would take 20 more years for these efforts to be successful but she was on the cutting edge of a movement that would finally end segregation.

In 1941, she entered Howard Law School to become a civil rights lawyer.  She was the only female in her class.   While in law school, she became a founding member of the Congress for Racial Equality, an organization dedicated to non-violent methods of overcoming racism.  She also published a number of articles on civil rights.

In her senior year, she wrote a paper arguing that separate can never be equal—separate is inherently unequal and cannot pass constitutional muster.  Her paper later became the basis for Thurgood Marshall’s argument in Brown v. the School Board, which finally declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

She did a post-graduate law degree at UC Berkeley after Harvard turned her down because she was female.  When she graduated she wrote a book called “States’ Laws on Race and Color,”—which Thurgood Marshall called the Bible for civil rights lawyers.   In 1952, she lost a post at Cornell University because her references, Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt and Philip Randolph were considered too radical in the era of McCarthyism.

She accepted an academic post in Ghana in 1960 and wrote a book on Ghanaian law while there.

In the early 1960’s, when she returned, she worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Philip Randolph and other civil rights leaders, but in August 1963, she wrote to Randolph that she had “been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.”

She was also active in women’s rights, publishing an important law review article called “Title VII and Jane Crow,” in 1965.  She worked with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to write the brief in Reed v. Reed, the seminal case that held that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to women.  She was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, but later withdrew from that organization because black women were not included in the leadership.  She wrote: “Black women, historically, have been doubly victimized by the twin immoralities of Jim Crow and Jane Crow. … Black women, faced with these dual barriers, have often found that sex bias is more formidable than racial bias.”

Pauli Murray was a prophet who was ahead of her time.  She understood how gender, race and gender identity intersect and multiply discrimination.   She refused to give up on her vision of justice and dignity for all people.  Listen to her vision of community:

“True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”

That vision was rooted in her faith . . . in the God of the Exodus, the God of compassion and justice. . . .God who hears the cries of widows and orphans, and insists that the resident alien and the poor shall not be wronged or oppressed.

Her faith in Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, led her to ordination as the first African American woman priest in the Episcopal Church in 1977, just a few years after the first women were ordained.  She was a lifelong Episcopalian who had frequently mourned the lack of female leadership in the church.  God called her to this final act of courage and prophetic witness to a church that was not always listening.

Pauli Murray’s light has been hidden, but in the last few years, it has been revealed. The seeds she sowed have borne fruit, through God’s grace. She lived long enough to see some of the fruit of her labor, even though she didn’t consider it a success at the time:  She wrote:  “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the gospel vision of dignity and justice for all people.  We are called, like Pauli Murray, to struggle against oppression and violence and injustice in our nation in nonviolent ways.  We are called to continue to work whether we are successful or not, whether our efforts are recognized or not.  We continue to plant seeds and water them, knowing that it is God who makes them sprout and grow, God who gives us hope and strength, God who will finally bring about God’s vision for the world.

In conclusion, one more quote from Pauli Murray:

“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” 

More information on Pauli Murray:

New Yorker article




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