Human rights champion and queer saint Pauli Murray is a renowned civil rights pioneer, feminist, author, lawyer and the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Her feast day is today (July 1).
She was approved in a 2012 vote for inclusion in the Episcopal Church’s book of saints, “Holy Women, Holy Men.” Usually the Episcopalians wait until 50 years after a person has died before making granting sainthood, but for Murray the church set aside the rule and approved “trial use” of materials commemorating her now.
Murray was attracted to women and her longest relationships were with women, so she is justifiably considered a lesbian. But she also described herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body and took hormone treatments in her 20s and 30s, so she might even be called a transgender today.
Others have written extensively about her many accomplishments, but material on Murray’s sexuality is hard to find. She did not speak publicly about her sexual orientation or gender identity issues, but she left ample evidence of these struggles in her letters and personal writings.
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (November 20, 1910 – July 1, 1985) was born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in Durham, North Carolina. She became aware of her queer sexuality early in life. In Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White, historian Anne Firor Scott explains:
“In adolescence Murray began to worry about her sexual nature. She later said that she was probably meant to be a man, but had by accident turned up in a woman’s body. She began to keep clippings about various experiments with hormones as a way of changing sexual identity…. In 1937, at the initiative of a friend, she had been admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York, and during her stay there she examined her worries about her sexual nature in writing, and said that she hoped to move toward her masculine side... . She continued for years to discuss the developing medical literature about hormones, thinking they might help her. She discussed the possibility of homosexuality with doctors; she knew that she was attracted to very feminine, often white, women, and she knew as well that… she was not physically attracted to men. This conflict would continue for the rest of her life.”
Murray’s queer side is discussed in many books, including American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism by Nancy Ordover and To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America by Lillian Faderman, and in the play “To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray” by Lynden Harris.
A graduate of New York’s Hunter College, Murray was rejected from the University of North Carolina UNC Chapel Hill’s graduate school in 1938 because of her race. She became a civil rights activist. Murray was arrested and jailed for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus in Virginia in 1938 -- 15 years before Rosa Parks became a national symbol for resisting bus segregation. In the late 1930s Murray was also seeking psychological help and testosterone implants from doctors in an effort to “treat” her homosexuality by becoming more male.
Eager to become a civil rights lawyer, Murray was the only woman in her law school class at Howard University in Washington, DC. In 1941 she organized restaurant sit-downs in the nation’s capital -- 20 years before the famous Greensboro sit-ins.
She graduated first in her class in 1944, but was rejected by Harvard because of her gender -- even though President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter of support for her after Murray contacted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Instead Murray studied law at the University of California in Berkeley. She wrote numerous influential publications, and NAACP used her arguments in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that ended racial segregation in U.S. public schools.
In the early 1960s President John Kennedy appointed Murray to the Commission on the Status of Women Committee. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin on civil rights -- and criticized the 1963 March on Washington at the time for excluding women from leadership. In 1965 she became the first African American to receive a law doctorate from Yale. A year later she co-founded the National Organization for Women.
Instead of retiring, Murray launched a new career at age 62. She entered New York’s General Theological Seminary in 1973, before the Episcopal Church allowed women priests. She was ordained in 1977. She celebrated her first Holy Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC -- the same church where her grandmother, a slave, was baptized.
After a lifetime as a human rights activist, she drew on her own experience to preach a powerful vision of God’s justice. In a 1977 sermon recorded in Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings, she said:
It was my destiny to be the descendant of slave owners as well as slaves, to be of mixed ancestry, to be biologically and psychologically integrated in a world where the separation of the races was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States as the fundamental law of our Southland. My entire life’s quest has been for spiritual integration, and this quest has led me ultimately to Christ, in whom there is no East or West, no North or South, no Black or White, no Red or Yellow, no Jew or Gentile, no Islam or Buddhist, no Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic, no Male or Female. There is no Black Christ, no White Christ, no Red Christ – although these images may have transitory cultural value. There is only Christ, the Spirit of Love.
Murray died of cancer on July 1, 1985 at age 74. Her best known book is Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956), her memoir of growing up as a mixed-race person in the segregated South.
The trial use commemorations of the Episcopal Church include this new prayer:
Liberating God, we thank you most heartily for the steadfast courage of your servant Pauli Murray, who fought long and well: Unshackle us from bonds of prejudice and fear so that we show forth your reconciling love and true freedom, which you revealed through your Son and Our Savior Jesus Christ.
In the Spirit of Those Who Led the Way” series by North Carolina artist Laurel Green. She creates digital artworks in conversation with more traditional media.
Pauli Murray profile at LGBTHistoryMonth.com
Pauli Murray Named to Episcopal Sainthood (duke.edu)
Paul Murray bio (Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.