Who Was Pauli Murray?

Quck answer

Pauli Murray was a prominent American civil rights activist, lawyer, and writer. Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray faced racial and gender discrimination throughout her life. She became the first African American woman to earn a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School. Murray fought for gender equality and was a key figure in the civil rights movement. She co-founded the National Organization for Women and played a crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Murray’s activism and writings paved the way for future generations of activists, making her a significant figure in American history.


Today’s Wonder of the Day is centered around a remarkable individual. This person was not only a poet, but also a lawyer, an activist, a priest, and a teacher. Can you guess who we’re talking about? That’s right, it’s Pauli Murray!

Born on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Pauli Murray was the fourth child out of six siblings. Unfortunately, both of their parents passed away, leaving Murray orphaned. They then went to live with their aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina.

Living as a Black person in the South during the early 20th century, Murray faced significant prejudice and discrimination, not only due to their race but also because they were assigned female at birth.

Despite these challenges, Murray remained determined. They moved to New York City and attended Hunter College, residing in Harlem. During this time, they had the opportunity to mingle with renowned writers such as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The Great Depression hit in 1929, causing Murray to lose their job and struggle to find another one. Nevertheless, they managed to graduate from Hunter College with a degree in English in 1933. In the following years, Murray became actively involved in organizing and advocating for workers’ rights, participating in labor strikes.

In 1938, Murray applied to the University of North Carolina for graduate school but was rejected solely based on the color of their skin.

In 1940, Murray decided to return to North Carolina for the holidays. While traveling on a bus with a friend, they were asked to move to the back of the bus due to segregation laws. Refusing to comply, both Murray and their friend were arrested and fined.

Murray’s reputation as an activist continued to grow. They started working on the case of Odell Waller, a Black man from Virginia who had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury for shooting a white man. Through their efforts, Murray established a friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, Waller’s appeals were unsuccessful, and he was eventually executed.

This experience further fueled Murray’s determination to dismantle Jim Crow laws and combat the discrimination faced by women of color, which they referred to as “Jane Crow.” Murray applied and was accepted to Howard Law School, where they were the only woman in their class.

After graduating, Murray faced yet another setback when they were denied admission to graduate studies at Harvard University simply because they were not male. Instead, they enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. The issue of gender would continue to be a complex aspect of Murray’s life.

Today, many experts believe that Pauli Murray was transgender. Although the term “transgender” was not commonly used during their lifetime, Murray did identify as both male and female at different points in their life. They also sought hormone treatment to affirm their gender identity, but were denied access to such treatment.

In 1950, Murray wrote a book titled “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which became a crucial document in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. This case led the Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation in 1954. In the 1960s, Murray actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement and continued advocating for women’s rights. In 1965, they co-founded the National Organization for Women.

In 1977, Murray entered the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. They were the first African American woman to do so. Just eight years later, in 1985, Murray passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Pauli Murray achieved a great deal during their lifetime. Today, they are remembered as a powerful advocate for equality. What aspect of Murray’s life do you find most intriguing?

Give It a Try

  • Pauli Murray played a significant role in the civil rights movement, although they are not as well-known as other prominent figures of that time, such as Martin Luther King Jr. To learn more about their life, read this article from the National Organization for Women. What aspects of their life do you find most interesting? Which of their many skills and talents would you like to possess? Share this article with a friend or family member and discuss the life and accomplishments of Pauli Murray.
  • Pauli Murray faced numerous setbacks in their life, yet they managed to accomplish many important things. If you encountered similar hardships, do you think you would persevere or be discouraged? Write a few paragraphs about how you handle difficult situations in your life and some strategies you can employ to ensure they do not hold you back. Do you seek support from someone? Who assists you? Do you take a break? Do you divert your attention by watching TV or reading a book? Share what you have written with a friend or family member.
  • Watch this video from PBS to gain more insight into the life of Pauli Murray. Share the video with a friend or family member and engage in a discussion.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/the-many-lives-of-pauli-murray (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://paulimurray.yalecollege.yale.edu/subpage-2 (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/pioneering-pauli-murray-lawyer-activist-scholar-and-priest (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://nmaahc.si.edu/LGBTQ/pauli-murray (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://www.paulimurraycenter.com/who-is-pauli (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://www.paulimurraycenter.com/pronouns-pauli-murray (accessed September 20, 2021)
  • https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed September 20, 2021)

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