In her foreword to the final volume of Notable American Women, scholar Susan Ware puts the case succinctly: “Pauli Murray was involved in practically all the major developments that historians write about when they try to make sense of the 20th century… Civil rights, feminism, religion, literature, law, sexuality—no matter the subject, she was there.”
And, it bears noting, she was frequently there about a generation or so before her culture arrived. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks wouldn’t yield her seat in Birmingham, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a Virginia bus. Twenty years before the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, Murray led a group of university students demanding service at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
After UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard denied her admission to their law programs on the basis of her race and gender, she went on to become one of the architects of the legal strategy the NAACP pursued in overturning segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall called her writings “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.”
But despite these and other achievements—including co-founding the National Organization for Women in 1966, and becoming the first African-American woman ordained an Episcopal priest in 1977—Barbara Lau, executive director for the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center, notes, “the most common thing I hear is, ‘Why don’t I know about her?’”
Lau credits Murray’s childhood in Durham with fundamentally influencing the outcome of her life. “Pauli Murray grew up in that family at a time when black and white people were growing Durham, prospering and reaching some of their potential. She came to Durham in 1913, at a point when all of the Jim Crow laws start being enforced. She grows up at a time where her uncle Richard (the first president of Mechanics and Farmer’s Bank) had a 24-room mansion here in Durham.”
“But,” Lau adds, “she also sees that her grandfather can’t drink out of the same water fountain as white people. She sees that the school she went to is built of wood, while the white kids had a brick school. She gained her concept of what was possible—and her experience of the impact of segregation—here. And she fought against that for the rest of her life.”
For playwright and director Lynden Harris, the scope of Murray’s achievement weren’t as daunting as capturing “a feeling for her actual life as lived—which was really quite a bit different from the stories that just portray, in hindsight, how effective some of her actions were.”
“We do this with many of our heroes. It’s very easy for them to become iconic figures, rather than human beings. Certainly, Murray did not experience her life as extraordinary in grace so much as challenging and demanding. At one point she wrote, ‘I’ve lost most of my battles, but I’ve lived long enough to see my ‘lost causes’ found.’”
TO BUY THE SUN premieres this week at Hayti Heritage Center, before performances Feb. 4-5 at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter.