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Pride Month: Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray mural in Durham
Brandon Goins

North Carolina’s history possesses a wealth of diverse human experiences. In honor of Pride Month, we are highlighting some of North Carolina’s most influential queer people.

A trailblazing civil rights leader, religious leader, and attorney with roots in Durham, North Carolina, Pauli Murray helped shape the civil rights movement. She was an inspiration to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and NAACP leader Thurgood Marshall.

Anna Pauline Murray was born in 1910. At age four, she moved to Durham to be raised by her aunt. After graduating top of her class at Hillside High School in 1926, she moved to New York to attend university. She returned home to North Carolina in 1938 looking to pursue her graduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but due to her race, was not granted admission.

Murray’s activism may have begun in her twenties. Later in 1940, she was arrested in Virginia for protesting bus segregation.

In 1944 Murray graduated from Harvard Law school. Her time at Harvard was marked by racial and gender discrimination. Her activism continued there, as she frequently participated in sit-ins with other students. She was denied the chance to do post-graduate work at Harvard University because of her gender. She earned a master's degree in law at University of California, Berkeley, and in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.

Murray was also a writer and a poet. In 1956, she published her book “Proud Shoes” which is largely set in Durham and reflects on her childhood and family history from slavery to reconstruction.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall both credited Murray, a queer, black, non-gender-conforming attorney, in their work to achieve equity for all.

Pauli Murray’s argument that the Equal Protection Clause should apply to gender-based discrimination and racial discrimination equally was useful in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1971 Reed v. Reed brief. It argued that women couldn’t be excluded as administrators of personal estates. Ruth Bader Ginsburg even listed Pauli Murray as honorary co-author of the brief. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s strategy in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case was also assisted in large part by arguments Murray had made in the brief, States’ Laws on Race and Color.

Spending her later years pursuing her passion for ministry, Murray became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977. She died of cancer eight years later, in 1985. Her legacy lives through her poetry, writings, and those who stood on her shoulders. Durham’s Pauli Murray Project honors her legacy by working to ensure that Durham holds strong to Murray’s vision of equity and justice regardless of race, class, sexual and gender identity, or spiritual belief.