Black History Month Week 3

The Rev. Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

"Seeing the relationship between my personal cause and the universal cause of freedom released me from a sense of isolation, helped me to rid myself of vestiges of shame over my racial history, and gave me an unequivocal understanding that equality of treatment was my birthright and not something to be earned. I would be no less afraid to challenge the system of racial segregation, but the heightened significance of my cause would impel me to act in spite of my fears."

Pauli Murray was an early and committed civil rights activist and the first African American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Born in Baltimore in 1910, Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina, and graduated from Hunter College in 1933. After seeking admission to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1938, she was denied entry due to her race. She went on to graduate from Howard University Law School in 1944. While a student at Howard, she participated in sit-in demonstrations that challenged racial segregation in drugstores and cafeterias in Washington, DC. Denied admission to Harvard University for an advanced law degree because of her gender, Murray received her Masters of Law from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1945.

In 1948 the Women’s Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church hired Murray to compile information about segregation laws in the South. Her research led to a 1951 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which became a foundational document for Thurgood Marshall in his work on the decisive Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Committed to dismantling barriers of race, Murray saw the civil rights and women’s movements as intertwined and believed that black women had a vested interest in the women’s movement. In recent years, scholars have brought to light Murray’s complex sexual and gender identity, including her attempts to access testosterone therapy as early as the 1930s.

In later life, she discerned a call to ordained ministry and began studies at General Theological Seminary in 1973. She was ordained as a deacon in June 1976, and, on January 8th, 1977, she was ordained as a priest at Washington National Cathedral. Murray served at Church of the Atonement in Washington, D.C., from 1979 to 1981 and at Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore until her death in 1985.

Murray’s books include the family memoir Proud Shoes: Story of an American Family (1956) and the personal memoir Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987).

Liberating God, we thank you for the steadfast courage of your servant Pauli Murray, who fought long and well: Unshackle us from the chains of prejudice and fear, that we may show forth the reconciling love and true freedom which you revealed in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect and hagiography taken from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018. Copyright 2018 Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.)

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