Civil Rights activist Pauli Murray (1910-1985) is known for her challenges to Jim Crow (as when she applied to the segregated University of North Carolina for graduate study in 1938), and her ordination to the priesthood in 1977 (Murray was the Episcopal Church's first African-American female priest). She has received increased attention from both scholars and activists in recent years, but little has been said about the connections between her political commitments and her religious convictions. Sarah Azaransky ably addresses those connections in her wonderful new monograph, The Dream is Freedom.
Azaransky teases out three themes in Murray's writings. First, identity: Murray constantly navigated binary identities in which she did not neatly fit. She was a light-skinned African American with white and black antecedents. Her sexuality was decidedly not heteronormative; in early adulthood, she sometimes cross-dressed, and she referred to herself as having a "'boy-girl' personality." She was a woman working in a civil rights movement that, by her lights, marginalized the concerns of black women. As Azaransky shows, Murray's vexed personal relationship to "identity" shaped her academic writing about racism. Central to Murray's legal writings was the concept of "Jane Crow," a term she used to name the double discrimination black women experienced.
Murray was also concerned with history. In Proud Shoes (1956), a family history that discussed both the slaves and the slave-owners from whom Murray was descended, Murray posited her family's story not as a strange exception to the American norm, but as paradigmatic: Like her family, the American family was multiracial, and the rape that led to the conception of her grandmother was a synecdoche for the violence that underpinned the American experiment.
Third, Azaransky identifies what she terms a democratic eschatology in Murray's work. Murray continually called on America to live up to the nation’s democratic ideals. The fulfillment of America's democratic promise lies in the future, Murray said, and each citizen must work toward the realization of genuine democracy.
Azaransky also shows how important reconciliation was for Murray. Reconciliation was, first, a family matter. As a young adult, Murray was troubled by the pride her black grandmother took in her white forebears. But later in life, Murray "credited her grandmother's 'view of her own life as a symbol of the possibility of the reconciliation between the races and classes, however fragmentary the symbol may have been.'" This was the kind of reconciliation the nation needed, Murray believed, and her commitment manifested itself politically (as when she criticized the Black Power movement) and liturgically (as when she celebrated her first Communion at the church in which her enslaved grandmother had been baptized).
Azaransky argues that throughout her life, Murray "call[ed] on scripture and theological norms to evaluate American democracy's failings." She saw UNC's refusal to admit her, for example, as not merely undemocratic, but also "un-Christian."
Murray also spoke the idiom of democracy to criticize the church. For example, by the late 1960s, Murray had begun to work actively for the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. When, in 1969, she received a fund-raising petition from the church, she wrote to the bishop's office that expecting women to fund the church while refusing to ordain them amounted to "taxation without representation." In Azaransky's shrewd reading, Murray’s tart words to the church were just one instance of her using "democratic norms to critique religious practices and institutions."
The Episcopal Church has undertaken the (lengthy) process of recognizing July 1 as a day of special remembrance for Pauli Murray. On that day, many in the Episcopal Church pray:
Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Pauli Murray, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God.
The Dream is Freedom may be read not only as an astute scholarly consideration of Murray's religious and political commitments, but also as an informative and inspiring exegesis of the courage, reconciliation, and freedom named in the church's prayer.
Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School.