Pioneering priest fought race, sex bias all her life

Pauli Murray, a Baltimorean, made history in 1977, when she was ordained the Episcopal Church's first African-American female priest during services held in Washington.

The year of her ordination, she connected with her personal past when she celebrated her first Holy Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross on the University of North Carolina campus, where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized 122 years earlier.


She brought with her two items that day. She had a purple ribbon from a box of flowers that Eleanor Roosevelt had sent to her years, and she carried her grandmother's worn Bible.

Long before she became a priest, Dr. Murray had led several successful careers. She had earned five college degrees and had been a poet, lawyer and teacher, who devoted her life to fighting sexual and racial discrimination.


She described her work as "confrontation by typewriter," and during the 1940s, she sued Harvard Law School, led sit-ins and was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus.

She was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore in 1910, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a nurse.

She was baptized at St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, and after her mother's death when she was 3, she was raised by her maternal grandparents and aunts in Durham, N.C.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Hunter College in 1933, she taught in the Works Progress Administration's Workers' Education Project until applying to the University of North Carolina law school, where she was told that "members of your race are not admitted."

UNC would not accept its first African-American law student until 1951.

"I kept bumping into the law at every point where I challenged segregation. I am the kind of person who attracts snags in the legal system," she said of her decision to attend law school in a 1977 interview with The Sun Magazine.

She enrolled in Howard University School of Law School, where she graduated with honors in 1944. While there, led sit-ins at Washington restaurants.

In 1944, she sued Harvard Law School after being denied admission on the basis of her sex to study for a master's degree in law. The first woman was admitted six years later.


Dr. Murray earned her master's in law from the University of California at Berkeley in 1945, and a doctorate in juridical science from Yale University in 1965. Her dissertation examined "the roots of racial crisis."

"I entered law school preoccupied with the racial struggle and single-mindedly bent upon becoming a civil rights lawyer, but I graduated an unabashed feminist as well," she told Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship.

Inspired by Gandhi's nonviolent protests in India, Dr. Murray became active during the 1930s with the National Urban League and the Workers Defense League, elements that later became part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In 1940, while riding a bus from New York City to North Carolina, Dr. Murray refused to move to the back of the bus and sit on broken seats. Her refusal resulted in her being jailed for several days in Petersburg, Va.

"I didn't get on that bus to contest segregation," she said in the 1977 interview. "I wasn't going to sit on a broken seat."

Admitted to practice in New York, California and before the Supreme Court, she became the first black deputy attorney general of California in 1946.


In 1951, she wrote States' Laws on Race and Color, a work considered so influential that Thurgood Marshall made certain that every member of the legal staff at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had a copy.

During the late 1950s, she was the only female lawyer at the New York City firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison.

She was senior lecturer of constitutional and administrative law at the Ghana School of Law from 1960 to 1961, and for the next two years served as a member of the Committee on Civil and Political Rights of President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women.

From 1968 to 1973, she taught American studies - which encompassed law, politics and society - at Brandeis University.

A modest woman, Dr. Murray explained that the quest for civil rights had been going on for hundreds of years.

"This has been a continuous struggle since 1619 [when the first black slaves arrived in Virginia], and each generation has it fighters," she told The Sun Magazine. "If you worry about who gets credit, you're in trouble."


In 1966, she joined with Betty Friedan and others in founding the National Organization for Women. She is credited with making sure that gender remained a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex.

Dr. Murray changed careers in 1973 after the death of a close friend and enrolled at General Theological Seminary in New York and then at Virginia Theological Seminary to study for the priesthood.

"The one place I can proclaim it is a universal struggle is in the church, which proclaims it is a universal church," she said in the 1977 interview. "I didn't decide to become a priest in order to do this. God decided this. Why is it that national recognition comes to me only when I am ordained a priest? If you can answer that question, you'll know why I became a priest."

"All the strands of my life had come together," she wrote after her ordination.

She also was the author of Dark Testament, a collection of her poetry, and Proud Shoes, a family memoir published in 1956.

She died in Pittsburgh in 1985.