top of page

CANA Celebrates Women's History Month: Pauli Murray

A Poet, Writer, Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist, Feminist, Priest…

I had never heard of Pauli Murray until after I moved to North Carolina, but Murray is a person I now consider a hero of mine. Pauli is a historical figure that most Americans should be grateful to. Murray’s actions and writings were influential in providing a large portion of U.S. citizens with the freedoms and liberties they have today. Born in 1910, Pauli Murry lived and struggled through not only Jim Crow laws that discriminated against her based on race, but also through something she referred to as Jane Crow which discriminated against her based on her gender. 

Murray was an orphan who was sent to live with her relatives in Durham, North Carolina from Baltimore, Maryland after her mother’s death when she was only three. She was raised by her Grandparents and Aunts and attended a segregated high school that only went through the 11th grade. Murray was sent to New York to live with other members of her extended family so she could complete the 12th grade and continue her education. Murray would have preferred to attend Columbia University, but they did not admit women at that time, and Murray could not afford the tuition for Barnard, Columbia’s Women’s College. Instead, Murray earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Hunter College. Some of the writing she did during her time at Hunter was the beginning of a memoir entitled Proud Shoes she wrote about her mother’s family.

Murray, like many people during the great depression struggled. Unemployed, in poor health and malnourished Murray ended up going to Camp Tera which is where Murray first met First Lady Elanor Roosevelt. Camp Tera was a project of the First Lady and was a place where unemployed women could find some refuge during the great depression. The two would correspond with one another throughout their lives and even work together. Many might believe that this would have been an unlikely friendship, but as Patricia Bell-Scott outlines in her book The Firebrand and the First Lady: portrait of a friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, the two had many things in common. Both shared the same given name, Anna. Both had been orphaned and raised by older members or their extended families. They both shared a love of reading and were critical thinkers and champions of social justice. Murray and Roosevelt work together on labor issues and civil rights issues. The two would later serve on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women during the Kennedy administration.

Murray held five degrees in her lifetime. She earned a BA in English from the City University of New York, Hunter, an LLB from Howard University, an LLM from the University of California, Berkeley, an SJD from Yale University, and finally an MDiv from General Theological Seminary.  Despite Murray’s aptitude as a scholar, she faced both racial and gender discrimination in pursuit of higher education. In 1938 Murray applied to a PhD program in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Murray was denied entrance based on the state's race segregation laws. Murray was hopeful that her case would be taken up by the NAACP, but there were complications and they decided not to take on her case. Murray began law school in 1941 and finished first in her class at Howard University. It had become a tradition that the number one Law School student from Howard University was offered a fellowship to continue graduate work at Harvard University. Murray was denied this opportunity this time because she was a woman. Murray would later describe this as Jane Crow (a reference to the Jim Crow Laws she struggled with when she lived in the South).


Despite the challenges Murray faced she persevered. Here are some of her major accomplishments:

-1946 1st black deputy attorney general in the state of California

-1946 Named Woman of the Year by the National Council of Negro Women

-1947 Named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle magazine

-1952 Wrote the States' Laws on Race and Color (referred to as the bible of the civil rights movement by Thurgood Marshall)

-1960 Murray went to Ghana and joined the faculty at the Ghana School of Law  

-1961 Served on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women where she wrote a memorandum advising that the 14th amendment protected against sexual discrimination as well as racial discrimination. (This would be used later by RBG)

-1963 She began to criticize the civil rights movement for not including sex discrimination as part of the movement.

-1964 Murray wrote a legal memorandum to include sex as a category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act 

-1966 Murray Co-founder of National Organization of Women aka NOW

Though this list is not all-encompassing, it is a sample of some of the things she did to help provide greater opportunities for Americans who were once not recognized as having full rights under the law.   

Among Murray’s published works:

Proud shoes

Song in a Weary Throat

States’ Laws on Race and Color 

Dark Testament and Other Poems

The Constitution and Government of Ghana

More Information on Pauli Murray:

My Name is Pauli Murray Documentary, Julia Cohen, and Betsy West Directors 

The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott


Katharine Doyle is a Senior Data Science Analyst here at CANA. If you would to contact Katharine, you can reach her at or on Linkedin.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page