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Pauli: Episode 2 Transcript

Laying Down The Law 

Leoneda Inge

Maybe I should come clean about something. I have what I call a “love-hate relationship” with Pauli Murray. Hold on, it's mostly love. And maybe hate isn't even the right word. It's more of a frustration. It seemed to me Pauli was always trying to prove she was just as good and just as smart as any white man or woman. And I know that fight all too well. It will wear you out. And in a world shaped by white supremacy, it's unwinnable. The truth is all Pauli Murray had to do was be Pauli Murray. She was unlike most people of her generation. She was brilliant, bold, brave. She was enough. It's always easier to say that about someone else than about yourself. But shoot even I get tired sometimes. And I'm not afraid to say so. But Anna Pauline Murray? Well, tired didn't seem to be in her vocabulary.

I'm Leoneda Inge This is Pauli, a podcast from North Carolina Public Radio about the power of one person to remain tireless and change what's possible for us all.

Leoneda Inge 01:36
One of Pauli Murray’s greatest contributions to the Civil Rights Movement was an exhaustive 700-page document with a dry title. States’ Laws on Race and Color sounds a little more glamorous when you call it by its nickname, “the bible of civil rights law.” That's what Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice called it at least. What comes together on those pages was considered a pre-eminent guiding text for legal minds of that generation. And here's Pauli, an unsung young law school grad being praised by one of the best known Black law pioneers of the 20th century. But the road to writing that bible was anything but glamorous for her. It was unpaved, arduous, and more often than not, she was this close to having to sleep on the side of it.

Kenneth Mack 02:32
Pauli Murray never had any money. She was always poor.

Leoneda Inge 02:35
That's Kenneth Mack, professor of law and affiliate professor of history at Harvard University. He's also the author of Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.

Kenneth Mack 02:49
There's no Wikipedia back then, there's the worldwide web, there's no sort of compilation of all the laws. You got to go to law library and find out, “Okay, the state statutes of Missouri, you know, what's on them." You know, you got to look through all of them and figure out what's what. So, you know, this is going to take, you know, a year or two of work to figure out what are all the state laws on race and segregation all over the United States.

Leoneda Inge 03:17
Pauli shelled out shoe leather traveling state to state, documenting local segregation laws, and collecting them all in States’ Laws on Race and Color. The text is credited as essential in winning the landmark school segregation case Brown versus Board of Education.

Kenneth Mack 03:37
Brown versus Board of Education was argued twice in the U.S. Supreme Court. But one of the things they had to figure out was, well, what were the segregation laws all over the country because, in fact, they were asking the Supreme Court to issue a ruling, which was about school segregation in the five jurisdictions that made up the Brown case, the five places the cases were from, but the court understood and everybody understood that this is a case with national implications. So Pauli Murray had done the research to figure out what were the segregation laws all over the country in this book called States’ Laws on Race and Color which she wrote at great difficulty,

Leoneda Inge 04:19
While others affiliated with the ruling rose to fame, Pauli survived on modest financial support she received from the women's division of the Methodist Church. That and the courage of her own convictions. In order to understand her tenacity, and what sparked Pauli to help lay the foundation for the legal fight for civil rights, we have to look a few years further into her past.

Pauli Murray 04:47
Well, first I have to say that I and my school friend who was arrested with me did not start out deliberately to contest Virginia segregation statutes.

Leoneda Inge 05:03
This is Pauli Murray herself in a 1976 interview with the Southern Oral History Program. She's talking about a trip she and a friend took from New York to Durham for the holidays back in 1940.

Pauli Murray 05:17
The bus we started out on was a long, very nice bus, plenty of room. And we probably sat somewhat to the rear of the center of the bus, having plenty of room, you know, plenty of room for whites, plenty of room for Negroes. We stopped at Richmond, I guess for a restaurant and lunch stop or whatnot, and somehow, we were late getting back to the original bus.

Leoneda Inge 05:56
Pauli and her friend, Adelene McBean, Mac for short, wound up on a much smaller bus. And this is where the trouble began. Pauli and Mac are asked to get up and move further back on the bus. When they find that the seat behind them looks broken, they refuse to move there.

Pauli Murray 06:16
The driver goes out, and I suppose goes through all of the necessary business about drawing up a warrant, or a warrant of arrest or whatnot. Still not quite ready to arrest us. And finally bringing on the police and trying to make a deal. But in the process, apparently the driver thinks that there might be a court case. And so he goes up and gets a batch of volunteer name and address witness cards and routinely hands out all of these witness cards to every white person in the front of the bus. And when he gets to the last white person he then turns you see. At which point I say, “Driver, how about giving us one of those cards? We're also witnesses.” At this point, they go out and get the cops and arrest us.

Leoneda Inge 07:26
The incident led to jail time after Pauli refused the option to pay a fine. She appealed once again to the NAACP, who had declined to represent her when she disputed UNC’s rejection of her college application on the basis of her race. This time, things were different. In her cell, Pauli wrote a summary of the bus incident.

Pauli Murray 07:52
And when the lawyers came, we presented it to them. And they looked it over and they said, “Well, this is practically as good as a lawyer’s brief.” So, this implied that you should study law.

Leoneda Inge 08:09
She did go on to study law of course, but the arrest itself wasn't the catalyst. It was how the NAACP challenged segregation law and how prosecutors tried to get around it that inspired her

Pauli Murray 08:24
When the state discovered that the NAACP was going to challenge this and probably use this as a test case, it withdrew the charge of the segregation statue and left standing the creation of a disturbance. And I began to think, although I couldn't say it in these terms, I did not have the legal skill, they are afraid to penalize you for what they really want to penalize you for because they know that these laws now are increasingly under legal challenge. And of course, this was 194o. 1946 the various identical statues, under which I was convicted, in Irene Morgan's case, Commonwealth versus Morgan, were declared unconstitutional.

Leoneda Inge 09:27
Quick history road stop here. The case Pauli references, Irene Morgan versus the Commonwealth of Virginia, was a similar incident in which a Black woman refused to give up her seat to white passengers when asked and was also arrested as a result. When Morgan's case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, her legal team won. Thurgood Marshall was co-counsel on that team. Another Marshall-Murray connection, Pauli’s commitment to documenting segregation law began at Howard University School of Law. That's Marshall's alma mater, and that of other successful Black civil rights lawyers at that time.

Danielle Holley-Walker 10:13
One of the unique things about Howard that was really unique to any law school at the time, Howard was the only law school that was a civil rights laboratory.

Leoneda Inge 10:21
This is Danielle Holley-Walker, Dean of Howard University School of Law.

Danielle Holley-Walker 10:27
So starting from the period of 1929, when Charles Hamilton Houston became the Vice Dean of Howard's law school, it became an intentional laboratory. So you could not attend school at Howard and refuse to work on civil rights matters. So everything that they were doing was around creating equality for Blacks in the military, in education, in housing. And so by going to Howard, that became automatically a part of her law school education, which many of the theories at the time in terms of separate but equal were that we will demand equality, right, we may have separate facilities, separate schools, but we'll demand equality in those schools. Whereas I think Pauli’s vision was a vision of true equality, substantive equality, which meant that you can't have segregation and have any real form of justice. I think what we would now call a justice narrative is what she brought.

Leoneda Inge 11:32
Murray’s intersectional approach to civil rights law had a lot to do with her own identity. She considered herself as a maverick, and someone who did not conform to binaries. In this podcast, we use the pronouns "she and her" because Pauli publicly identified as a woman. But gender fluidity also influenced Pauli’s ideas and actions. And at least one biographer has made the choice to retroactively label Pauli transgender.

Kenneth Mack 12:06
You know, Murray felt like a man or at least like the boy that she often dressed as, and she wanted to do the things that men did. In that era, there are a lot of civil rights lawyers, but they were all men. There are very accomplished Black women lawyers, Sadie Alexander in Philadelphia, for instance, but they didn't go to court in civil rights cases. So Pauli Murray came to Howard law school because she wants to be a civil rights lawyer, and she wanted to go to court just like the NAACP lawyers had done in her case.

Leoneda Inge 12:40
Like many of her ideologies, Pauli’s approach to envisioning equality was considered radical. Take her law school thesis, for instance.

Pauli Murray 12:50
This paper raised the question as to whether or not Plessy versus Ferguson and the civil rights cases of 1883 should not be overruled. My intense desire was to find a legal basis for overruling the segregation decisions. To try to see if I could not show that the 13th Amendment was intended to strike down not only the legal relationship of slavery, but also the badges of servitude.

Leoneda Inge 13:29
Plessy versus Ferguson is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case from 1896. rooted in an experience Pauli had first-hand knowledge of: segregated transportation seating. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a mixed race man from Louisiana's Creole community, refused to sit in a Blacks only train car. He argued the request to do so violated his constitutional rights, specifically his rights under the 14th Amendment, which granted equal citizenship to all American born citizens. In the end, the high court ruled that segregation was not a violation of Plessy’s rights. That ruling laid a foundation for Jim Crow laws that would become far more prevalent in the 20th century. By the time Pauli Murray got to law school, the Plessy ruling had been in play, emboldening blatant segregation for more than 40 years. She was over it.

Kenneth Mack 14:35
She was always ahead of her time. So her law school thesis, for instance, which called for a direct attack on Plessy, Murray wants to attack it based on the 13th Amendment which prohibited slavery, not the 14th Amendment. That was really a radical theory, which the Supreme Court to this day has never embraced.

Leoneda Inge 14:56
Howard Law didn't embrace it either.

Kenneth Mack 15:00
She writes about this in her autobiography, in her papers, you know, she says that the men at Howard law school laughed at her when she came up with this idea, you know, it's time to attack segregation directly.

Genna Rae McNeil (Murray’s interviewer) 15:12
Now, following your graduation from Howard, you sought a graduate degree in law and eventually went to California, UC Berkeley. What was the experience in California at the law school like?

Pauli Murray 15:29
I began my graduate work as a continuation of something which I had started at Harvard University in my senior year, my senior civil rights paper. This paper raised the question as to whether or not Plessy versus Ferguson and the civil rights cases of 1883 should not be overruled. After six months of backbreaking research, working under D.O McGovney, who was the constitutional professor and the man who, after all of this work, charts and whatnot, he looked over the evidence and came to the conclusion that it was inconclusive.

Leoneda Inge 16:18
The U.S. Supreme Court did eventually overturn Plessy versus Ferguson. That began with the desegregation of schools in 1954 with the Brown versus Board of Education case. In addition to using Pauli’s “bible,” States’ Laws on Race and Color, to make the case for desegregation, Thurgood Marshall also shared Pauli’s law thesis on Plessy with the Brown v. Board team. Though her name isn't always spoken in discussions of civil rights law victories, Pauli’s major part in those successes can't be overstated. Pauli herself noted this during her lifetime, she seemed acutely aware of her influence, even as accolades usually reserved for her male peers eluded her. From her bus incident arrest to her law school thesis, to the “bible," her contributions were essential to the Civil Rights Movement collective. And yet, she didn't seem to enjoy a sense of personal success.

Pauli Murray 17:22
In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case I personally failed. But I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I say very often is that I've lived to see my last causes found.

Danielle Holley-Walker 17:52
I want to welcome you to “The Singing of a New American: Pauli Murray’s Legacy and Justice in the 21st Century.” This event is part of Howard University’s sesquicentennial celebrations and is also the university's Constitution Day event. 

Leoneda Inge 18:08
In 2017, Howard University hosted its first ever conference on the life and legacy of Pauli Murray.

Danielle Holley-Walker 18:19
We, you know, kind of talk about her, I think, really on a daily basis inside the institution. But I felt like she deserved her own conference, one in which we could really talk about her legacy and also what she means to the civil rights issues of today.

Leoneda Inge 18:37
Pauli Murray might be surprised to see how different Howard University School of Law looks today, especially when it comes to its Black female student body.

Danielle Holley-Walker 18:48
When you walk along the main corridor in Houston Hall, on the first floor, you see the class mural for the class of 1944. And she's very easy to spot because she's the only woman and it's not until, you know, the late 1960s, that you really begin to see a huge number of women in our classes. And just in that span of, you know, 50 to 60 years, the predominance of women in our space, a large number of our staff members, faculty members, and students are women. We have about 150 entering students every year, between 150 and 175 entering students every year, and about 70% of them are women. So we are largely, you know, a Black women's law school.

Leoneda Inge 19:44
Not only would Pauli find the student body transformed, she'd also be able to find evidence of her influence on the school's approach to civil rights law.

Danielle Holley-Walker 19:55
I think what we would now call a justice narrative is what she brought to race in civil rights, what she brought to gender in civil rights, is this notion of a justice narrative. And I think the idea of facial equality versus real justice is something that we are struggling with so much in our country right now. And so her civil rights legacy is tremendous. But I also think, the justice framework that she had allows what she was doing at the time around race, then she turned it to gender. Now we've turned it to gender identity, into sexual orientation. The justice framework is also important to disability work, right? It's important to religious, if you develop this kind of justice narrative, justice framework, you can turn that to any area of inequality and marginalization that you have in the law and on the ground.

Leoneda Inge 21:00
After all, this tireless effort, the immeasurable impact of our work writing a literal “bible,” would Pauli think she'd done enough to earn a rest. I'm going have to guess no. And my answer is informed by what she did next, in a final act of indefatigable commitment to justice. Next time on the podcast, let the people say amen.

Kim Jackson 21:27
Pauli Murray was a what we would call it progressive Christian before we even knew what progressive Christians were.

Pauli Murray 21:35
It seemed to me as I look back over my life, that I was being pointed in the direction of the priesthood or service to the church,

Leoneda Inge 21:47
From legal writings to the Lord's work.
Pauli is a production of North Carolina Public Radio. Special thanks to the Southern Oral History Program. Our producers are Charlie Shelton-Ormond, and Stacia Brown. Lindsay Foster Thomas is our executive producer. Jenni Lawson is our engineer. I'm Leoneda Inge.