Before Rosa Parks There Was Pauli Murray

May 18, 2018

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was raised in Durham. She became a legal scholar, civil rights pioneer, and Episcopal priest.
Credit UNC Digital Library and Archives

Pauli Murray is an often-overlooked civil rights trailblazer. She staged her first “protest” at 5 years old  when her aunt gave her grandfather three pancakes while she only received one. Murray was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section on a Virginia bus 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat.

Credit Liveright Publishing

Murray’s life is filled with firsts that include being the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Her memoir, “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage” was first released posthumously in 1987. Liveright Publishing re-released the book earlier this month with an introduction by Patricia Bell-Scott, an American scholar of women's studies and black feminism. Bell-Scott joins host Frank Stasio to discuss the life and legacy of Durham-native and unsung heroine Pauli Murray. 


On the legacy of Pauli Murray:

She is [one of] the most important civil rights [and] women’s rights figures. The most important trailblazing Episcopal priest and a very important writer. And she has been ignored. And I am absolutely delighted that this memoir has been re-released, because it tells the story of her life in her own words.

On growing up in Durham:

Durham was full of role models. There was part of the community there that was regarded as Black Wall Street. So she grew up where there were role models.  She also left there with the sense that she was an intelligent person – that she had a sense of agency. But because she was so determined, it was important for her that she leave a community, a situation, which would not allow her to blossom in ways she needed to. One of the things she needed was not to have to grow up in segregation.

On getting rejected by UNC-Chapel Hill:

She wants to go to the University of North Carolina for graduate school, and unfortunately at that time the university would not admit black students. And so Pauli – which was her way – created a stink. She wrote [to the] president of the university. She ran a campaign in the press to call attention to this unfair policy –  this unfair whites admissions only policy.  So in this book, her memoir, she details both this wonderful childhood and the nurturing she got in Durham, but she also discusses the challenges she had with the University of North Carolina.

On being erased from the history of the civil rights and women’s movements:

She was one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women. I think that’s important, because she is missing from sort of traditional histories of the civil rights movement because many of those histories focused on the men who were institutional leaders. But she’s also been missing, up until recently, in some of the histories of the women’s movement, because those histories often focused on primarily white women.

On her contribution to school desegregation:

One of the things Pauli argued in that essay is that we really need to look at the psychological literature and look at the impact of segregation on children … Pauli’s argument was laughed at when she presented it in the classroom, but it had an impact on the Justice [Chief Justice Warren] a decade later. I like to declare her a co-architect of the Brown decision.