Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a poet, a lawyer, a priest, a freight hopper, Eleanor Roosevelt’s friend, arrested for refusing to comply with bus segregation laws, a closeted member of the LBGTQ+ community, a professor, and so much more. Their work has influenced Supreme Court decisions, the Civil Rights movement, and countless individual people.
Get to know the life and work of Pauli Murray, so that we can remember her name and pass it on to future generations.
“I had come to my present plateau by small, positive accretions – periodic recognition of myself as a person of worth interspersed with desolate periods of suffering, bewilderment, anger, rage, and self-doubt – often finding myself so hemmed in by suffocating walls of exclusion that my only safety valve against frenzy was the act of pouring out my feelings through the written word.”
In this online exhibit, you may notice that Murray is referred to using both she and they. While she was alive, language and gender expressions were different than they are today. We don’t know what pronouns they might choose to use now. During her lifetime, she wrote with the language available, using she and her. However, throughout their life Murray identified sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman, which we would now call gender fluidity. Following the example of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, the AWM has chosen to use both she and they to better show the complexity of Murray’s gender identity.
Another term you may notice when reading or listening to Dr. Murray is the word Negro. The AWM has kept Murray’s quotes as close to the original as possible. Murray was a firm believer in the fight to move language from the use of “negro” with a lower-case n to “Negro” with a capital N. They thought that the capital letter showed dignity and respect, and was worried in their later years as language moved to start using “black” instead. This is a great example of the changing nature of language.
Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: A Classic in African American Genealogy explores the family history of Pauli Murray, a pioneering lawyer, activist, writer and priest.
This online exhibit is presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Pauli Murray Center is a nationally significant history site, anchored by Pauli Murray’s childhood home built by her grandparents in 1898 in Durham, North Carolina.
Told largely in Pauli’s own words, My Name is Pauli Murray is a candid recounting of that unique and extraordinary journey. Watch the trailer here, and stream the full film on Amazon Prime Video.
Special thanks to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice for their assistance in creating this exhibit.
Thank you to the estate of Pauli Murray, with permission from the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency for the use of photos and quotations from the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.