Pauli Murray: A Relentless Intellectual Giant who Fought for Equality

Pauli Murray is one of the many unsung heroes from our history. Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, ten years before women could vote and died in 1985, in the height of the AIDS epidemic. In the seventy-five years she was on this planet, she was relentless in her pursuit of knowledge and in fighting for justice. She was an intellectual giant whose legal analysis played an outsized role in the fight for racial and sexual equality. 

Fighting Racial Discrimination 

Murray was an early adopter of Satyagraha, a concept introduced by Mahatma Ghandi, as a method of determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Long before the more well-known lunch counter protests, Murray was coordinating sit-ins and picketing protests. A skilled organizer, Murray would target a business that was a national chain — pushing changes at one store that would be applied to all their stores. 

Murray and her partner Adelene McBean were arrested in Virginia while traveling to visit Murray’s relatives during the Jim Crow era. In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Park’s arrest,  they were arrested for not moving back on a bus.  Their attempt to fight the charge failed, as it was common for peaceful protesters to be charged with “public disturbance” or “resisting arrest,” rather than the reality of refusal to comply with a discriminatory law. 

When Pauli Murray was in law school in 1944, she laid out an argument to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case where the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial discrimination was legal. She believed the law would change within 10 years through applying the Civil War Amendments, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. None of her classmates believed her or that the progress could happen that fast.

Nevertheless, less than 10 years later, Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights attorney and later Supreme Court Justice, argued Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), which overturned separate but equal. He based much of his legal argument on Murray’s analysis, that the equal protection of the laws required the end of segregation because segregation inherently carries a stamp of inferiority. 

In preparation for this victory, Murray had taken on a momentous project to compile a list of all the laws of all the states that were based on Race and Color. Published in 1955, this huge volume of work would become the roadmap for overturning laws that barred BIPOC individuals from serving on juries, voting, riding in segregated bus cars, and being served in restaurants. 

Gender & Sexual Identity 

Murray described herself as a late-comer to the fight for gender equality. She spent the latter part of her life in the fight against sex and gender discrimination. She was a part of a presidential commission on women wherein she was able to persuade the commission to fight for Title VII, believing that any non-discrimination law that did not include sex would exclude Black women from the benefits of the law. She and her colleagues were also masters at persuasion, using Southern legislators’ own racism against them. If legislators were not to include sex as a protected class, then their wives and daughters would have fewer protections than Black men.  

Murray was also a major proponent of using the 14th Amendment in arguing that sex was an immutable characteristic, and like race, it could not be changed. Therefore any law that was tied explicitly to a biological sex difference was unconstitutional. It is interesting that Murray would argue that sex is immutable, given that in her own life, she seemed to believe that it was perhaps not as unchangeable as “immutable” implies. Arguing that sex was something that could not have been changed was a similar strategy to what was employed to pass Title VII. Title VII offered routes to eliminate gender-based barriers and would increase access to jobs and more for everyone, especially people who wanted to pursue “non-traditional jobs”.

Murray often lamented that there were no organizations as equipped at the NAACP to fight sexist laws and norms. In an effort to change this, she helped lead the efforts to create the National Organization of Women. 

Murray’s Gender & Sexual Identity 

Murray described herself as a “he/she personality” and “boy/girl” to family and in correspondence, though always used “she/her” pronouns.

Early in Murray’s life, Murray believed she was a hermaphrodite (the term used at the time). Murray asked doctors to do exploratory surgery to see if she had undescended testes or male sex organs. Murray requested — and was denied — testosterone injections.She endured a belief that she had some psychological problems. Later in life, Murray discovered a significant thyroid issue. After surgery, Murray describes feeling much calmer and wondering how much of the struggles many of her family members dealt with could have been related to this. It appears that after this she stopped asking for any testosterone or similar treatments, but Murray identified with and preferred to present more masculinely.

In Murray’s romantic relationships, she usually dated bisexual women hoping that they could also see and love the masculine parts of her, and she did not like the label “lesbian.” 

Learn more about Pauli Murray 

Much of Murray’s activism and fight to end race and sex-based discrimination was based in what we now refer to as an intersectional analysis. Murray often described herself as a “minority within a minority.” 

This article does not even begin to scratch the surface of how truly extraordinary Pauli Murray was. If you’re looking for a more in-depth history of Murray’s life, then check out, “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” by Rosalind Rosenberg. Murray also had an extraordinary relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt that is captured in “The Firebrand and the First Lady” by Patricia Bell-Scott. 

In the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the Seattle Dyke March, we will be sharing more stories of the people who came before us to pave the way for the dyke and queer communities of today.


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