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The wonder and mystery that is Pauli Murray

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Pauli Murray

The wonder and mystery that is Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray was the best of us. In her lifetime, she became a poet, a writer, a feminist, a labor organizer, a civil rights lawyer, and then finally, an Episcopal priest.

However, not many knew of her or her contributions, whether fighting for women’s rights or the civil rights movement.

Likewise, not too many people know of her LGBT affiliation, which seems to have been buried even deeper than her contributions.

The wonder of Pauli Murray

If we were to go through the life and accomplishments of Anne Pauline Murray, we’d fill up this whole post and more. But to give you a gist, here are the pertinent details:

Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Murray was orphaned after the separate death of her parents and went to live with her aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina.

She wrote articles and poems in a number of magazines, as well as a novel, Angel of the Desert, that the Carolina Times serialized. She had a collection of her work published in 1970.

She became friends with the poet Langston Hughes when she was younger, had a long-term friendship (23 years!) with Eleanor Roosevelt, and then helped found the National Organization for Women with noted feminist Betty Friedan.

She later was involved in the fight against segregation in public transport when she was arrested and imprisoned in March 1940 for her refusal to sit at the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia. 


In 1941, Murray went to law school to become a civil rights lawyer. During that time, she helped articulate the intellectual foundations for two of the most important social justice movements of the 20th century.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. In 1977, she became the first African American woman to become a Episcopal priest.

The mystery of Pauli Murray

While people are now starting to get to know Murray, there are other aspects of her life that are still being uncovered.

For example, Rutgers University assistant professor Brittney Cooper told HuffPost that Murray was a victim of “respectability politics” when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) refused to take her case when she was arrested in Virginia.

“When she desegregated a bus… the NAACP would not take her case because when she was pulled off the bus, she was on the bus with a woman that might have been her partner,” Cooper said.

Cooper noted that Murray– who preferred to dress in pants and wore her hair short– struggled to find her identity outside the gender binary, and would have probably identified as a transgender male today.

She also shortened her name from Pauline to Pauli because it was more androgynous and that when she was arrested, she told officers her name was Oliver.

In the 1940s, Murray had hormone treatments and even asked for abdominal surgery to see if she had “submerged” male sex organs.

“She, at the end of her life, lived as a lesbian, because by the time we had the language for trans identity, she was a civil rights attorney, she was very well-respected, and respectability politics wouldn’t have allowed her at that late stage of her life to go back and adopt the trans performance that she was so searching for in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Cooper said.

In 1985 the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray passed away due to pancreatic cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she lived with a lifelong friend, Maida Springer Kemp.

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