Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by WonderTeam from Gainesville, FL. WonderTeam Wonders, “Who Was Pauli Murray?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, WonderTeam!

Today’s Wonder of the Day is about a poet. It’s also about a lawyer. It’s about an activist, a priest, and a teacher. And it’s only about one person! Who took on all these roles in one lifetime? Pauli Murray, of course!

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 20, 1910. They were the fourth of six siblings. Sadly, Murray was orphaned when both of their parents passed away. Murray went to live with their aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina.

As a Black person living in the early-20th century South, Murray faced a great deal of prejudice. They received unequal treatment under the era’s Jim Crow laws. Murray was also assigned female at birth. This led to further discrimination.

Murray remained determined in the face of this adversity. They moved to New York City and enrolled in Hunter College. During this time, Murray lived in Harlem. They spent time with writers like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois. 

The Great Depression came in 1929. Murray lost their job and struggled to find a new one. Still, they managed to graduate with a degree in English in 1933. In the following years, Murray became an organizer and activist. They took part in labor strikes and advocated for workers’ rights. They applied to the University of North Carolina for graduate school in 1938 but were turned away due to the color of their skin.

In 1940, Murray decided to go home to North Carolina for the holidays. Murray and a friend left New York City on a bus. In Virginia, they were asked to move to the back of the bus due to segregation. After refusing, they were both arrested and fined.

Murray’s reputation as an activist continued to grow. Soon, they began working to help a Black Virginia man named Odell Waller. He had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury for shooting a white man. Murray spoke out in Waller’s defense. In the process, they built a friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, Waller’s appeals were denied and he was later executed.

This experience strengthened Murray’s determination to end Jim Crow. They also targeted Jane Crow, a term they coined for the special discriminations faced by women of color. Murray applied and was accepted to Howard Law School. They were the only woman in their class. 

After graduation, Murray was rejected from graduate study at Harvard University. Harvard turned Murray away for not being male. Instead, Murray enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. The issue of gender would continue to be a complex subject in Murray’s life. 

Today, many experts believe Pauli Murray was transgender. While that term wasn’t commonly used during Murray’s lifetime, they did identify alternatively as male and female throughout their life. Murray also sought hormone treatment to confirm their identity. However, they were denied such treatment.

In 1950, Murray wrote “States’ Laws on Race and Color.” This book became a central document in Brown v. Board of Education. This case led The Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation in 1954. In the 1960s, Murray took part in the Civil Rights Movement and continued to advocate for rights for women. In 1965, they co-founded the National Organization for Women.

In 1977, Murray became a priest in the Episcopal Church. They were the first Black woman to do so. Just eight years later, in 1985, Murray died of pancreatic cancer.

Pauli Murray accomplished much during their lifetime. Today, they’re remembered as a strong voice for equality. What do you find most interesting about Murray’s life?

Standards: C3.D2.Civ.13, C3.D2.Civ.14, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.R.2 CCRA.R.1. CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.1 CCRA.W.2, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.2 CCRA.SL.2

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