Pauli Murray and the Need for Racial Reckoning

George Floyd Protests SF (quinn norton/Flickr)

Confederate monuments are toppling across the nation following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans. Activists have worked to amplify how the violence these monuments embody oppressed Black Americans for more than a century. 

Yet removing monuments may be less challenging than coming to agreement on what replaces them. The urgency to move quickly is understandable, but racial justice demands more. 

Our work in North Carolina uplifting the legacy of human rights champion Pauli Murray has convinced us that a deep reckoning, not swift substitution, is necessary to build sustainable change. This requires educating the public about the complexities and violence of the past; fostering sometimes hard and lengthy conversations across diverse communities about the harm caused by systemic racism; and pushing institutions such as universities to adopt robust measures to address pernicious disparities in hiring, salaries, benefits, and support. This process can be as meaningful to progress as any final new site or name. 

Recent developments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Duke University, and efforts in our home town, Durham, capture both the significance of a deep racial reckoning and the risks of failing to engage in a thoughtful process. 

In recent years, North Carolina has seen dozens of protests tied to the renaming of buildings and the removal of racist statues. In 2018, after decades of marching, UNC students finally dragged down “Silent Sam,” a statue of a Confederate soldier at the campus entrance. Like so many sites across the South, Silent Sam honored the violent white supremacy that terrorized Black Americans for decades. At the statue’s 1913 inauguration, Julian S. Carr, a leading white supremacist, UNC alumnus, and major Duke donor, boasted about viciously beating a formerly enslaved woman who dared step on campus. Carr believed Silent Sam symbolized not just the glorious Confederacy, but a new white alliance that “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

Less well-known is that prior to 2018, communities in both Chapel Hill and Durham began the process of deep reckoning that’s central to lasting change. In 2015, UNC faculty and students shared their research in Names in Brick and Stone: Histories of UNC’s Built Landscape. In 2019, a separate university commission published an unsparing public report on the university’s ties to slavery and white supremacy

At nearby Duke, human rights faculty and students issued a report, “Activating History for Social Justice at Duke” that excavates the university’s roots in white supremacy. The report recommends community-wide conversations, more classes, hiring more Black faculty, and hosting community-led planning sessions on new memorials and names, among other actions. Later, university trustees voted to remove Carr’s name from the building housing the History Department, but as yet haven’t gone beyond vague promises on other recommendations.

In 2017, Durham residents–some Duke students–were among the first in the nation to tear down a Confederate monument. Later, the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials led an effort meant to start a deep reckoning with our past and recommend new sites. Our conversations revealed both a lack of knowledge about the past and shared enthusiasm for new sites, in particular to honor early mill workers–Black, white, and Brown.

Pauli Murray

These conversations also helped us shine a spotlight on Pauli Murray, once a forgotten Durham daughter who dedicated her life to defending human rights and challenging racism and sexism. Born in 1910, she was orphaned at 4 and came south to be raised by her mother’s family. As she recounts in her memoir, Proud Shoes, her grandparents taught her about both her Black and white heritage. Her Black grandfather, a Union vet, moved to North Carolina to help teach newly freed African Americans. There, he met her grandmother, Cornelia. 

Cornelia’s father was a white slave owner and UNC alumnus. He raped Harriet, Cornelia’s mother. His brother, also a UNC alumnus, also raped Harriet. Later, their sister, Mary Ruffin Smith, donated land maintained through the labor of enslaved people. The land’s sale helped pay for the electrification of the UNC campus, literally the light that continues to illuminate the university’s work.

In 1938, Murray, following the family tradition, applied to UNC’s graduate sociology program, but the university’s then-president personally rejected her because of the color of her skin. Despite the setback, she thrived, becoming a brilliant legal theorist with a reputation for pushing personal boundaries around race, gender, sexuality and gender identity. In 1954, she helped craft the argument to desegregate public schools in the Brown v Board Supreme Court decision. She also helped add the category of “sex” to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, thereby protecting women’s rights. An accomplished poet and scholar, Murray was the first Black woman ordained in 1977 to the Episcopal priesthood. Her vision for a world in which human rights and identities are indivisible was prophetic. 

In 1978, UNC offered Murray an honorary degree. Before the degree could be conferred, the federal government threatened to cut UNC funding over the university’s minimal effort to increase Black student enrollment. Murray attempted to broker a resolution, but when that failed, she withdrew her acceptance. 

Despite these complications, some UNC faculty and students now want to affix Murray’s name to a building that previously honored a white supremacist professor. While such an impulse comes out of a desire to rectify past wrongs, it represents an easy response from a university that could do a lot more to address its racist past. 

There is much more work to be done before the university uses Murray’s name. Would Murray even agree that UNC has made enough progress to merit association with her legacy? Murray’s ties to the institution are steeped in a history of violence and exclusion—one that the university has yet to convincingly address. We must reckon with and account for the injury and violence of white supremacy, not slip past that hard work on the power of a monument or name. 

It’s also vital to ask what histories of other Black people are overlooked by the choice of selecting Murray’s name. For example, the university community might have considered Black alumni such as Floyd McKissick. In 1951, McKissick was among the first four Black students to enter UNC Law School. He later led the Congress of Racial Equality, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and served as a judge. Honoring him would recognize the work Black people have done to both perfect and serve our country and its ideals. Similarly, UNC alumna Karen Stevenson was the first Black woman to win a prestigious UNC Morehead Scholarship in 1975. She was also the first woman from UNC and the first Black woman in the nation to become a Rhodes Scholar. 

In recent weeks, many campuses are struggling with the challenge of how to respond to the uprisings and how to demonstrate their commitment to social justice. This is certainly a good thing. But the process of making these decisions should take into account a number of concerns, including the historical implications of selecting one name over another. This is an approach Murray herself would have advocated. She never shied away from tough, necessary conversations. As she wrote in Proud Shoes, “True emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.” As we work towards what comes next, we can take Murray’s words to heart. A reckoning for justice is long overdue.

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Barbara Lau and Robin Kirk

Barbara Lau is a UNC alumna and the executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. Robin Kirk co-directs the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, led the “Activating History” team, and is a Pauli Murray Center board member. Both served on the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials.

Comments on “Pauli Murray and the Need for Racial Reckoning

  • Social justice for all people still is the vision for Pauli Murray , until we have those tough necessary conversation using this approach making sure we do not take the easy road nor the soft gifts of changes will we build upon the foundation of true emancipation freedom with out opportunities that create a economical plan will the historical damage be reckon with good standard to help move forward together.The low hanging fruit is not the reward.

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