How Pauli Murray Masterminded Brown v. Board

This post is part of our forum on Black Women and the Brown v. Board of Education decision

Pauli Murray Mural (Flicker)

According to her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, Pauli Murray entered Howard University Law School in 1941 with the sole intention of ending Jim Crow. The Hunter College graduate spent much of the previous decade struggling to survive in Depression-era New York. She worked low-wage jobs in various Communist organizations before joining the federally funded, Works Progress Administration. As that project waned, Murray entered a period of deep vocational discernment during the fall of 1938. She opted for a primary career in law over creative writing after a series of life-changing events that transpired during an intense two-year period.

In December of 1938, Murray was rejected by the University of North Carolina on account of her race. The native North Carolinian hoped to be the first Black person admitted to their graduate school. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada fueled Murray’s ambition. In that case, Lloyd Gaines was denied admittance into the University of Missouri School of Law because he was Black. Missouri law supported and accommodated provided for segregation in the education system. However, its only post-secondary school for African Americans—Lincoln University— did not have a law program. Gaines and his NAACP legal team argued that his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law was violated because he would have to cross state lines for a separate education. The Court agreed, and it ruled that the state had to either admit Gaines or create a “separate but equal” law school for Black students. The state complied by establishing a segregated facility for Lloyd Gaines, but he mysteriously disappeared before he could matriculate. Galvanized by Gaines, Murray cited the ruling as she appealed her UNC denial letter, but to no avail. Both the university and the North Carolina state legislature refused to desegregate. Murray’s case was picked up by the press. While she did not want national attention, the incident allowed her to forge a personal friendship and a political alliance with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Following her rejection from UNC, Pauli Murray focused her energies in three areas: writing, organizing, and studying the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1939, she began working on her poetry book, Dark Testament, and a biography of her maternal family, Proud Shoes. Incidentally, her great-grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was the granddaughter and slave of one of the original trustees of UNC. That same year, Murray began working with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Workers Defense League to bring national attention to the plight of Black and white sharecroppers in the South. Her work with these organizations allowed her to test the effectiveness of Gandhi’s theory and method of nonviolent resistance in the South.

On a trip from Virginia to her family’s home in Durham, North Carolina, Murray entered the white section of a Greyhound bus to request more comfortable seating for her and her companion, Adelene McBean. The women were arrested after a verbal altercation with the white bus driver. With support from Eleanor Roosevelt, the NAACP, and several civil rights organizations, Murray and McBean got off with a fine. Although the legal ordeal that ensued did not strike down segregation in public transportation in Virginia, Murray concluded that nonviolent resistance was a “powerful weapon” in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity.

Soon after her release from jail, Murray remained in Virginia to serve as a fundraiser for the Workers Defense League in the case of Odell Waller. Waller, a Black sharecropper, was charged with murdering a white man after a dispute over pay. His defense argued that Waller would not receive a fair trial because juries in Virginia were filled with white men—individuals who could readily pay fees to participate in local politics and the judicial system. Murray again used her connections in the White House to earn support for the case. Her efforts neither saved Odell Waller from execution nor ended the poll tax in Virginia, but the case did serve to bring clarity to her vocational journey.

Pauli Murray was confident that Howard’s law program would equip her with the tools to chip away at Jim Crow in the U.S. What she did not count on was learning about sex discrimination, or what she called, “Jane Crow,” in the program that produced the most talented Black civil rights lawyers in the nation. As the only woman in her class, Murray was frequently ignored in seminar conversations. The all-male faculty did not invite her to their social events. One professor questioned why a woman would want to attend law school. Though humiliated, Murray became motivated to become the top-ranked student in her class. Further, she emerged as a formidable activist who led sit-ins in Washington, D.C. restaurants and other public facilities.

By her senior year, in 1944, Pauli Murray was leading class discussions. In a seminar on civil rights, she proposed a “frontal assault on the constitutionality of segregation.” Rather than continuing with the NAACP tactic of addressing the “equal” part of Plessy v. Ferguson, Murray argued that the group should focus on the “separate” part of the equation and thereby, demonstrate that “separate” was “unequal.” Her male classmates, and even the professor, Spottswood Robinson, laughed at her idea. They retorted that her approach would only serve to further the Supreme Court’s affirmation of segregation. Murray, undeterred, bet Robinson $10 that Plessy would be overturned in twenty-five years. Further, she wrote a seminar paper, “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v. Ferguson Be Overruled?” to suggest how to use the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to that end. When Murray submitted that paper as a third-year law student, she unknowingly masterminded Brown v. Board. She graduated as the valedictorian of her class and went on to have a high-profile career as an attorney.

Pauli Murray noticed an intellectual affinity with the Brown ruling in 1954. As she predicted ten years earlier, segregation was overruled because the NAACP lawyers showed that “separate” educational facilities were “unequal” and therefore, unconstitutional. Another decade would pass before Murray realized that her agreement with the strategy used in Brown was not coincidental. In 1963, Murray visited Howard Law School to meet with Spottswood Robinson, who was then serving as dean. She asked him if he knew whatever became of her paper and he promptly produced a copy of it, along with the $10 he owed from their wager. Throughout their conversation, Robinson explained that when he joined the NAACP defense team in 1953, he had taken Murray’s paper with him to use in the Brown briefs. Murray was flabbergasted. She had no idea that her intention for going to law school had been achieved. By 1963, nearly every issue that Murray wanted to resolve before attending—and while attending—Howard had been solved because Plessy was overturned. Brown not only had implications for the education system, but also for discriminatory seating practices on public transportation, interstate bus transit, and restaurants. The poll tax would be abolished a year later.

Murray’s autobiography offers no answer from Spottswood Robinson to explain his failure to inform her of her contribution to Brown v. Board. Yet, Robinson’s lack of acknowledgment, coupled with her overall student experience at Howard, was the impetus behind another movement Pauli Murray masterminded, the women’s rights movement.  Pauli Murray was a visionary feminist thinker who proposed the idea of an “NAACP for women” to Betty Friedan. The National Organization of Women was founded in 1966. As a member of the ACLU, Murray co-authored the article, “Jane Crow and the Law” with Dorothy Kenyon. The piece argued that the Equal Protection Clause should be applied to cases of sex discrimination in the same way that it applied to cases of racial discrimination. Ruth Bader Ginsberg successfully used this strategy in Reed v. Reed, which ruled that gender discrimination was unconstitutional. Further, Ginsberg credited Murray and Kenyon on the brief, even though they were not actual co-authors. This should have been the case with the Brown v. Board briefs, but it was likely not because Pauli Murray was openly queer and gender non-conforming.

Pauli Murray was a prophetic legal scholar and activist who did not fully meet the respectability requirements of twentieth-century civil rights leaders. The standard was male, heterosexual, Christian, nonviolent, married, educated, and free of Communist associations. Yet, without Murray’s foresight, creativity, intellect, and intense commitment to the freedom struggle and human dignity, the “standard” civil rights leaders, namely, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have been successful in their efforts to gain rights for African Americans. After spending years confronting segregation and sexual discrimination on her own behalf, Murray spent her entire legal career developing strategies to end racism and sexism in matters of the law, and later, in the Christian church. Decades after masterminding Brown, Pauli Murray became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977. With that post, she continued in her intention to defeat both Jim and Jane Crow.

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Tejai Beulah Howard

Tejai Beulah Howard is assistant professor of history and African American religious and ethical studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio in Delaware, Ohio and a certified spiritual director. Dr. Beulah Howard’s recent writing is featured in the book, We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign (Broadleaf, 2021) edited by Rev. Liz Theoharis, The Other Journal, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, and Journal of American Academy of Religion. She is currently at work on a monograph on the role of the black power movement and black evangelical preachers. For fun, she enjoys music, bookstores, true crime documentaries, and sports. She resides in Columbus, Ohio with her amazing spouse, Jenn.

Comments on “How Pauli Murray Masterminded Brown v. Board

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    Dr. Beulah Howard, I thank you for this insightful and, I’d add, joyful piece on Pauli Murray. So much in such a short essay!

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      Thank you for reading, Mark!

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    Dr. Beulah Howard,

    I am honored to be one of your students. Great article, with plenty insightful information. I look forward to learning under your leadership at MTSO.

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    thoughtful piece… connecting all the dots. nice to speak about the dilemma and courage of the evolution of black feminists ?? public and private intellectuals… grateful for you

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      Thank you for reading!

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    Thank you for reading, Jackie!

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