The Civil Rights Pioneer Who History Forgot

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.

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Why you should care

Because while Pauli Murray might not have been a woman of her time, she is certainly a woman of our time.

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The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.

Source Getty Images

You probably never learned about the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray in school when you were studying another reverend–doctor and the U.S. civil rights movement. But you should have. Pauli Murray was a civil rights leader well ahead of her time. She was mixed race. She was transgender. It was often hard for her to find acceptance. “One of the great things about Pauli Murray is that she could easily have been crushed by all of the rejection that she met,” says Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, “but she turned this sense of being in between into one of the most important ideas of the 20th century.”

Murray knew from her own experiences what the law did not recognize. She knew race and gender were largely arbitrary categories without fixed boundaries. She knew it was just as wrong to discriminate against someone because of their gender as it was because of their race — something many of the men in the civil rights movement did not acknowledge. And time and time again, she proved what a civil rights pioneer she was. Nearly two decades before the restaurant sit-ins of the early 1960s, Murray led dozens of Black students at Howard University in a successful one. And in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Murray refused to give up hers on a bus in Virginia.

 

This week on The Thread, a podcast from OZY, we cover the story of Pauli Murray, including how she set out to change how lawyers and the law thought about race and gender discrimination. 

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