Pauli Murray by Rev Broderick Greer
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
The Rev. Broderick Greer is a priest on staff at Saint John's Cathedral, Denver, CO, USA. Follow him on Twitter.
I am ashamed to admit that I did not hear about Pauli Murray until my first year of seminary. Two associates of the Pauli Murray Project visited our campus for a few days and spoke of Murray’s lifelong commitment to human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and black liberation. I nodded enthusiastically. The project’s emissaries then honed in on two important dimensions of her dynamic existence: Her distinction as the first black woman ordained into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church and her private wrestling match with her gender identity and sexual orientation. As an Episcopal priest and black queer person, Murray’s story began, in that moment, to resonate in a way I could have never anticipated.
Anna Pauline Murray was raised by her grandparents in Durham, North Carolina after the death of her parents. Like many southern black Americans, Murray’s ancestry was sprinkled with black, white, and Native American forebears, a reality that informed and illuminated her self-understanding and thirst for justice. After graduating from Howard University Law School, Murray laid the jurisprudential groundwork for the argument that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause applied to sexism. This came after a robust law school career in which she argued that the racist Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling should be overturned because the “separate-but-equal” philosophy was fundamentally unconstitutional.
Due to racism in white communities and sexism in black communities, Murray’s profound contributions to U.S. social progress in the 1960s and 1970s were often overlooked, obscured, or understated. This, sadly, happened to one of Murray’s contemporaries, Bayard Rustin, as a result of his gay sexual orientation during the height of the black southern freedom struggle throughout the 1950s and 1960s. One of the casualties of throwing people like Murray and Rustin into the dustbins of history is a social amnesia that incorrectly assigns credit for social progress to people who are partly, but not wholly, responsible for society’s watershed moments.
Murray’s experiences, like anyone’s experiences, was indelibly imprinted by her social location. There was no way she could, with integrity, divorce her black identity from her identity as a woman and queer person. On one occasion, Murray said, “I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another.” For Murray, the integration of her identity in a culture undergirded by white supremacy, misogyny, and heterosexism was an instrument of liberation, an active resistance to the persistent question of “What is worse: Being black or a woman?” I imagine Murray dismissing the question as not being dignified enough to garner a proper answer. In a singular and dynamic way, Murray carried the weight of her identities and histories with her as she fought for a liberation that was broad yet particular.
Thirty-six years ago, poet Audre Lorde said the following in a public address at Harvard University on what she had learned from the 1960s and the southern freedom movement: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. Malcolm knew this. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this. Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone.” The person who knew this before Malcolm and Martin was Pauli. Her early scholarly and activist work packed critical legal theories, black queer embodiment, black feminist praxis, and the black radical tradition into a transformative vision for the United States as it could be, not what it was or is.
Before legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s, Murray had pioneered the use of the term “Jane Crow”, the unique experience of black women who faced compounding oppressions due to white supremacy and misogyny. Murray was, in a sense, prophetic in her early analysis of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. The prescience of her vision has caused her to become a patron saint, of sorts, for black queer people who often feel erased in fragmented conversations about race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. When disparate groups were just beginning to ask critical questions abut their specific plights, Murray had all of the groups in mind.
The tragedy and glory of Pauli Murray is that those unacquainted with her work will give it the backhanded compliment of, “She was before her time,” not realizing that Murray is transformative and iconic because she was indeed of her time, formed in the crucible of legal segregation, lynching, sexism, homophobia and codified anti-blackness. That Pauli was born, lived, and thrived as a black queer woman in a time when her existence was contested and illegal is a testament to her dogged desire to be seen, heard, and known as herself, in her particular embodiment and self-understanding. This comes as bad news to racists, homophobes, and sexists but as gospel for those who never knew anyone like them ever lived.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.