Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was a feminist and civil rights icon, blazing a trail for racial and gender equality in a time where women, especially Black women, were seen as woefully inferior. The late Rev. Murray might be best known to some as the first African-American woman to be ordained a Episcopal priest, but that is just one of her many noteworthy achievements.
Born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Md., the future activist enrolled in Hunter College in New York, graduating from the school in 1933. Murray’s visibility as a vocal proponent of racial justice began when she attempted to apply for law school at the University of North Carolina.
The school rejected her application because of her race, and the case made national headlines. The NAACP was initially involved in assisting Murray, but backed away for a variety of reasons including her sexual preference. Murray pursued the injustice anyway, even addressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the matter.
A 1940 incident led to her arrest for violating the bus segregation laws of the time, which inspired her to join the Worker’s Defense League. While with the socialist WDL group, Murray developed a taste for social justice.
She eventually earned law degrees from both Howard University and the University of California, graduating at the top of her class at Howard. Typically, the top Howard law student was awarded a Harvard University graduate fellowship but Murray was denied entry because she was a woman, despite a letter from President Roosevelt.
While in California, Murray passed the bar exam and made history in 1945 by becoming the first Black deputy attorney general in the state. While in the post, Murray published the States’ Laws on Race and Color in 1950. The book examined the segregation laws of the time, and became a central piece in developing the NAACP’s landmark “Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka” case.
After living abroad in Ghana and working at the Ghana School of Law, Murray returned to the States in the ’60’s and entered Yale University’s law program. In 1965, Murray became the first African-American and woman to earn a J.DS. degree. Murray went on to teach American Studies at Brandeis University. Murray introduced African-American and women’s studies programs at the school, a first for the university.
In her sixties, Murray left the school to join the Episcopal Church’s seminary program. As advocate of women’s rights, Murray challenged the prohibition on women in the priesthood by becoming the church’s first Black female priest in 1977. Murray moved her ministry to Washington. D.C. with a focus on sick people.
Murray was a founding member of the National Organization for Women. She authored six books in her lifetime that ran the gamut from poetry, feminism, activism, women’s rights and other topics dear to her.
Murray died of cancer in 1985. She was named an Episcopal saint in 2012.