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Pauli Murray: A Great American Hero


By Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP

[In honor of Black History Month, we reached out to our friends at the NAACP to share with our members about some of important LGBTQ work within the African-American community, as well as the organization's commitment to full equality.]

History can often be divided into two categories — the celebrated and the forgotten. We catapult some figures into the realm of legends while leaving others, even those who have fought selflessly against injustice, behind.

Black History Month provides a unique opportunity to uplift the stories of pioneers whose impact reverberates throughout our daily lives. While many are unfamiliar with the name and the story of Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, her legacy is one that everyone should know.

Murray was an activist, feminist, Christian and a member of the LGBTQ community who understood that justice could not function as a special lottery by which the luckiest and most privileged among us win. During her 50-year career as an organizer, lawyer and Episcopal priest, Murray spent her entire career working to end racial and gender discrimination and to ensure that the contributions of women to the Civil Rights Movement were known and acknowledged.

Murray’s pioneering civil rights work on behalf of African Americans and women would earn her many high honors. Thurgood Marshall called Murray's 1950 book, States' Laws on Race and Color the "bible" of the civil rights movement. She would also aide in founding two prominent civil rights organizations – the National Organization for Women and the Congress on Racial Equality.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910 and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Murray immersed herself in the struggle for civil and human rights after earning a degree from Hunter College in New York. She campaigned to enter the all-white University of North Carolina in the 1930s to pursue a graduate degree. With the support of the NAACP, Murray’s case received national publicity, though she never received admittance.

Soon after, Murray became involved in attempts to end segregation in public transportation. In 1940, she was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of a Virginia bus—fifteen years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

In 1941, Murray enrolled in Howard University’s School of Law. Soon after, she helped to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) – a civil rights organization, working alongside George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin.

After receiving law degrees from Howard University and University of California, Murray worked as a deputy attorney general of California. She also spent time in private practice before pursuing a doctorate in law at Yale University in 1960s. When she finished her doctorate in 1965, Murray became the first African American to be awarded a J.D.S. degree from the university.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Civil and Political Rights. While serving on the committee, Murray wrote a paper commissioned by President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, arguing that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal protection for women.
Murray__Pauli.pngThis document would later serve as inspiration for then ACLU Women’s Rights Project Director Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who wrote her brief in the landmark case of Reed v. Reed, a landmark equal protection case that forbade discrimination based on gender. While words in the celebrated brief belonged to Ginsberg, she gave authorship credits to Murray among others in recognition of her pioneering work for women’s rights. 

In 1977, Murray became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest.

Murray’s life and legacy reminds us that all lives matter. All are created equal. No one should be exempt from the promise of justice, fairness and equal protection under the law. Yet the matter of marriage equality remains a heated and controversial debate.

LGBTQ couples in 36 states can now marry. When our Board of Directors resolved to publicly endorse marriage equality in 2012 they did it because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Advocating on behalf of marginalized communities is who we are and who Pauli Murray was.

The NAACP won’t stop fighting until the civil rights of every American in this country has the right to marry.

Our mission has always been to ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people. Our Association has opposed and will continue to oppose any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBTQ citizens. In order to form a more perfect union, we must recognize and pay tribute to the enduring sense of humanity that abides in us all.

naacp_logo_fb_400x400.jpgThe mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination. The NAACP is the nation’s oldest, largest, and most widely respected grassroots-based civil rights organization. About the NAACP

cornell-william-brooks.jpgCornell William Brooks is the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In May 2014, he became the 18th person to serve as chief executive of the Association. Brooks previously served as president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in Newark, New Jersey, and as executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington. He holds a a BA in political science with honors from Jackson State University; a Master of Divinity, with a concentration in social ethics and systematic theology, from the Boston University School of Theology; and, a law degree from Yale University, where he was a Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal and member of the Yale Law and Policy Review. We appreciate his time and thank him for this story on Paulie Murray.

Michelle_Nealy.jpgWe also thank our contact at the NAACP, Communications Associate Michelle Nealy, for all of her time and help in facilitating this story for our newsletter and blog. Nealy is a writer, videographer and media specialist in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.


Pauli Murray head shot courtesy of DukeToday July 2012

States' Laws on Race and Color book image courtesy of Amazon

Pauli Murray working courtesy of Wikipedia

NAACP logo courtesy NAACP

Cornell William Brooks courtesy of CommonBlog 

Michelle Nealy - LinkedIn


Showing 3 reactions

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  • Jarrod Obstfeld
    commented 2024-04-28 01:00:49 -0400
    I couldn’t agree more with your points. Spot on!
  • Janet Locane
    commented 2023-10-17 03:55:24 -0400
    I read Murray’s book State Laws Relating to Race and Color and even wrote an essay about it. It was difficult. So I turned to residency personal statement editing services when I realize that I can’t cope up with writing my task. This helps me reduce my workload. And my essay turned out to be interesting and informative.
  • Janet Locane
    commented 2023-10-09 07:08:04 -0400
    Very interesting, thanks!