Pauli Murray: A civil rights leader, writer and queer trailblazer

Pauli Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore.

Yes, Maryland is considered the South, but stay with us. We want to claim this woman as a Southern icon.

She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1938 and attempted to integrate the University of North Carolina School of Law. But without support from the NAACP, she was unsuccessful. She was arrested in 1940 in Richmond, Va., for refusing to sit at the back of the bus. In 1941, she entered Howard University Law School in hopes of becoming a civil rights lawyer.

At Howard, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” as she became aware of the unique oppression Black women experienced. Murray worked with many well-known civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph, but was critical of the way men dominated the movement.  After graduating from law school, Murray published essays and books including “States’ Laws on Race and Color” and her most famous book of poetry “Dark Testament.”

In 1977, she became the first  African American woman to become an Episcopal priest.

In college, Murray changed her name from Pauline to the gender neutral Pauli. She used he/him, they/them and she/her pronouns in much of her writing in later life. After her death, scholars discovered personal writings exploring her gender identity. While being openly queer in the early 20th century was illegal, we can celebrate her queer identity after her death through research and honoring her later work.

Reckon covers women year-round. But since it’s Women’s History Month, we want to introduce you to Southern women we should all know about and whose props are long overdue. 

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