Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion: Views from the Other Side

By Rosemary Radford Ruether | Go to book overview

The Poetry of Pauli Murray,
African American
Civil Rights Lawyer and Priest

ELAINE CALDBECK

The Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray lived a life engaged in struggles for liberation.1 She embraced with passion the roles of poet, labor activist, feminist, civil rights lawyer, African American studies professor, and Episcopal priest. Her poetry provides a strong expression of her beliefs and feelings, revealing the foundation for her life. Thus, exploration of her ideas in verse provides a point of entry to understanding this woman, her intellectual products, and her activism. From her youth, Pauli Murray wanted to be a writer.2 She rose to significance as an activist and intellectual not through any spotlight-grabbing leadership positions, but through her published words. Beyond legal, political, and theological treatises, she authored a family memoir and an autobiography as well as prose articles and poetry on racism and sexism.3

Born in 1910 in Baltimore and orphaned by age three, Murray grew up with her maternal aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina.4 Her ancestors included three generations of highly educated free Blacks and also the offspring of an attractive slave raped by her white master. She grew up embedded in the complexities of race, class, and gender. Her family emphasized education, mutual support, giving back to the community, deep faith, and active membership in the Episcopal church. After high school, Murray moved to the North to escape the oppression of southern segregation and to attend college.

During the late 1930s she joined the Workers Defense League in its efforts to spare Black sharecropper Odell Waller from the death penalty.5 In response to his execution, she enrolled in law school at Howard University. As students, Murray and her friends honed methods of nonviolent protest at lunch counters and on buses.6 At Howard she also contributed a reframed refutation of the “separate but equal” doctrine, and her new argument made possible the success of Brown v.

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