(Image of Pauli Murray Courtesy of the Pauli Murray Project)
*This article is part of a month long series on underrepresented women within the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
by Madeleine Stout (@cellowolfe)
Anna Paulina (“Pauli”) Murray was a Civil Rights lawyer and religious leader. She spent her life fighting for equal rights against racial and gender oppression. Murray experienced southern segregation firsthand in her middle school and high school years. When it came time for her to attend college she was turned rejected by Columbia because she was a woman and turned from Barnard College for being too poor. She was directed to enroll in Hunter College, a city school for women with free tuition, but to get into Hunter College, Murray had to relocate to New York and finish her high school years in New York City. She enrolled in Hunter College in 1928 and graduated in 1933, one of only four black women in a class of 247 students.
In the 1930s, Pauli Murray attempted to find work and was hired within the Works Progress Administration (WPA, later the Works Project Administration). Murray began by teaching for the WPA and was later transferred to the Worker’s Education Project which set her to work with members of unions to learn about trade union laws, labor education, and collective bargaining. Late in the decade, Murray took an interest in racial studies and decided to pursue a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina, but was rejected in 1938 because of racial discrimination. Murray sent a copy of her rejection letter and correspondence with Dean Pierson and President Graham of the University to Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
According to Murray, “on January 5th, 1939, the story of my application broke in Chapel Hill and was quickly picked up by the local press…” and “the days immediately following the first press stories were anxious ones for me. I had touched the raw nerve of White supremacy in the South.” Even before Murray was an activist, she fought back against the unequal treatment of segregation in the South. Unfortunately for Murray, her racist rejection from the University of North Carolina did not result in a legal battle headed by Thurgood Marshall. This was the first instance of Murray butting heads with the patriarchal system in the Civil Rights Movement. Murray’s experiences resulted in two more possible cases for the NAACP to select in their fight against Jim Crow interstate transportation laws. In the 1940s, she was arrested twice in Virginia for conduct on Greyhound buses. She maintained contact with the NAACP in both short jail terms, but both legal cases against the Virginia state legislature on interstate travel were lost. Murray’s constant experience with Jim Crow segregation laws led her to become a lawyer.
(Pauli Murray – Photo courtesy of The Chicago Defender)
Murray entered Howard Law School and earned her law degree in three years. She claimed Howard Law School “provided excellent training for anyone devoted to the struggle to enforce civil rights”. Murray was one of two women within her program at Howard, until the other woman dropped out, leaving her the sole female in her class. When she started at Howard Law in 1940, Murray was hired part time to the Workers Defense League’s (WDL) administrative committee. During the 1940s, in cooperation with the WDL, the National Urban League, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the NAACP, Murray worked to organize and carry out the fourth annual National Sharecroppers Week. The National Sharecroppers Week was full of programming meant to inform the public of the problems sharecroppers faced in the South and to raise money to finance programs toward remedial action.
While with the WDL she worked on the appeal case of the black sharecropper Odell Waller, and tried to prevent his execution. Despite Murray and the WDL’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, Waller was executed on July 2, 1942. In response to the Waller execution, A. Philip Randolph wanted to organize a March in New York City and persuaded Murray to aid him in carrying out the march under the umbrella term of the “March On Washington.” He had confidence in Murray’s ability to garner support for the event, but Murray was surprised and frustrated when Randolph left New York for a NAACP convention in Los Angeles leaving her to organize and plan the march by herself.
The result was a small, silent anti-lynching march from 56th street and Eighth Avenue to Union Square held on July 25, 1942. This silent march would not have been possible if not for the leadership and planning of Murray, Dollie Lowther, Maida Stewart, and Anna Arnold Hedgeman. This event received some recognition in newspapers, but history has neglected it within broader conversations about the Civil Rights Movement. Overshadowed by A. Philip Randolph’s attendance, the women involved were given little praise.
In addition to organizing marches and working for the WDL, Murray became an established Civil Rights author in the 1940s. While in law school in 1941, Pauli Murray published the article “Negro Youth’s Dilemma” in the National Youth Administration’s magazine Threshold. Murray’s article posed questions about black involvement in World War I such as “What are we fighting for?” and called out the lack of democracy and equality in the United States for people of color. Murray credits “Negro Youth’s Dilemma” as, “the beginning of my student activism.”
Nearly twenty years before the Woolworth sit-in that inspired the creation of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, Murray and her fellow Howard students held a sit-in of their own. In April 1943, Murray and her colleagues marched to the Little Palace Cafeteria where they were refused service and in retaliation silently sat at a table with their notebooks, pens, and pencils and refused to move. The police arrived, but since the students were not being rowdy or breaking any laws, they were not arrested. The owner of the restaurant closed the Little Palace early. The students picketed and performed sit-ins at the restaurant until the owner capitulated and began serving African Americans.
The Little Palace Cafeteria sit-in gained little media attention and still receives little recognition within Civil Rights Movement history. It was during her time spent at Howard University that Murray became more aware of the women’s movement and drew parallels between the battle against racial segregation and the battle for suffrage. She began theorizing on how to vanquish gender discrimination within higher education. Murray made it her goal to try and bring down what she had dubbed “Jane Crow.”
Murray graduated from Howard Law School in 1944 and in 1946 she accepted a job at the Commission on Law and Social Action, an agency tied to the American Jewish Congress, but left nine months later to try and establish herself as a lawyer. Murray was met with constant rejection because of racial and gender discrimination. In 1948 Murray experienced difficulties with her application to the New York State Bar. The postwar United States experienced high levels of red-baiting and the of Communism hindered Civil Rights activists’ daily lives. Her time in prison in Petersburg, Virginia coupled with her arrests for picketing, her alias, and the articles she had written challenging American status quo all affected her application status.
In the end, Murray prevailed and was admitted. She then received employment from Carson DeWitt Baker, one of New York’s most successful black lawyers. Working with Baker gave Murray the opportunities to establish herself as a lawyer in New York. Throughout the 1950s, Murray took on multiple cases defending sharecroppers and black women. In 1956, Murray accepted a job as an associate attorney with Paul, Weiss, Ridking, Wharton & Garrison; a law firm in New York. She continued to take on civil rights and small claim cases through the 1950s.
In 1962, Murray was recommended by Eleanor Roosevelt to serve on John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women due to her activity as a civil rights and women’s rights activist. Murray had made connections between the fight for Civil Rights and the need for gender equality to benefit all women. Murray knew that black women faced hardships based on both race and gender.
In 1963, Murray battled the patriarchal hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement. A. Philip Randolph had agreed to speak at an all-male National Press Club and refused to speak on the issues of women in the 1960s. To make matters worse, Bayard Rustin and Randolph had excluded women from the list of speakers at the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Murray had worked with both men closely in legal cases for the WDL, NAACP, and protests so this decision felt like a personal betrayal to Pauli Murray. Murray publicly criticized the decision of Randolph and Rustin in a Washington Post interview. Murray claimed, “Women who have been active in local branches of the NAACP have observed the efforts of men to push them out of positions of leadership.”
Murray’s criticism of the March on Washington was based on her experience behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. Murray spent her lifetime working on legal battles against Jim Crow and Jane Crow legislation, as well as fighting against discrimination in different arenas from restaurants to academia. Not only did Murray battle racial discrimination from whites, but gender discrimination from black males within the Civil Rights movement. Murray’s life illustrates the way in which women met resistance within the movement and ultimately were pushed out of the historical spotlight. A woman who helped fight against segregation, went to prison for the movement, and helped legally defend blacks in the South, Murray has for the most part been skipped over by historians.
 “Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest: An exhibit about the life and legacy of 20th Century human rights champion Pauli Murray” The Pauli Murray Project. https://sites.fhi.duke.edu/paulimurrayproject/
 In her memoir, Song in a Weary Throat, Murray mentions countless instances when she was rejected for either being black or being female. She mentions facing bus segregation, school segregation, and even gender discrimination in both her educational and occupational life. Historians have begun investigating whether or not Murray faced discrimination based on sexuality in her lifetime as well. Some such as Rosalind Rosenberg in her book, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, mentions the theory that Murray was either a lesbian or transgendered.
 Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (Cambridge: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987) 66-69.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 92, 102-103
 Murray connects her rejection from the University of North Carolina with the historical Missouri Ex Rel Gaines v Canada case of 1938. When she responded back to the Dean of the University he told her that her enrollment was, “for the state to decide”. Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 115-116.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 117-118.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 126.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 146-149. Murray was in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt at this time, and even with Roosevelt calling to speak to the judge on behalf of Murray the cases were lost, showing just how difficult it was to challenge segregation laws throughout the South.
Allida M. Black. “A Reluctant but Persistent Warrior: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Early Civil Rights Movement” in Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 244.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 182.
 “85 Citizens to Sponsor National Sharecroppers Week March 4-11.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 03, 1940. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/492589891?accountid=14853.
 Her job with the WDL put Murray in close connection with Civil Rights Leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph, Norman Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, and Leon Ransom. To make an appeal of Waller’s sentencing the WDL had to raise $350 for legal fees. Murray had to travel to Virginia, something she herself did not want to do due after spending time in the Petersburg Prison back in 1940.
Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 150-156. See also, Rosalind Rosenberg. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) 97-101. See also, “FIGHT TO SAVE SHARECROPPER FROM ‘CHAIR’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Nov 16, 1940. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/492636125?accountid=14853. “Mother of Condemned Seeks Aid.” 1941.The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 01, 4. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/492639228?accountid=14853.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 105-108. From 1941-1946, the March on Washington Movement led marches across the country in the hope of creating a march in D.C.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 105-109.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 184-185.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 188.
 The majority of the students involved were women, and all of the students who had organized the sit-in, including Murray, were female according to her memoir. Newspapers did report on the Sit-in stating that some white patrons of the Little Palace Cafeteria understood the students “fight for democracy” and that it would “get my vote” if voted on integration of restaurants.
Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 207. See also, Harry McAlpin Defender, Washington Bureau. “Howard Students Picket Jim Crow Restaurant.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 24, 1943. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/492688976?accountid=14853.
Olson, Freedom’s Daughter, 20.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 208-209.
 Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 238-244.
 Murray mentions that many white run law practices didn’t want to risk having her on their team due to her skin color, while black law practices were either suffering economically at the time, or didn’t want to hire a woman.
Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, 270- 272.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 180-181.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 209.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 142-143, 242, 266.
 Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 266-267. See also, Julie A. Gallagher. Black Women and Politics in New York City (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 151. PAULI MURRAY, New Haven, Conn, BETTY K. KERLEY, HAROLD B. ATKINSON, Frank Harris, Wis Boaz, LEON SHAPIRO Baltimore, Annandale R.A. REEMSNYDER, and LOIS M. RETTIE. “Letters to the Editor.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), Aug 24, 1963. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/142030025?accountid=14853.
 By, Sue Cronk. “Women Given A Back Seat.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), Nov 16, 1963. http://ezproxy.villanova.edu.ezp1.villanova.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezp1.villanova.edu/docview/141955320?accountid=14853.