The life and legacy of Pauli Murray has been getting a lot of attention from the media lately. Articles on Salonand NPR have highlighted Murray’s trailblazing legal work around the intersections of race and gender in America. Murray’s scholarship and activism around ‘Jane Crow’ — the overlapping discrimination faced by women of color — arose from her own experience as an African-American woman in early 20th century and her arguments resonate with seemingly even greater force today.
Less talked about, but equally needed in our present time, is an examination of her work as a priest and a theologian — and, critically, how her understanding of religious and nonreligious concepts provided the means, methods, and motivation for her own activism.
Indeed, in a life filled with accomplishments, it was perhaps her final achievement that she prized most personally. In 1973, Murray became the first female African-American Episcopal priest.
A lifelong Episcopalian, Murray’s faith had always fueled her work for racial and gender equality. A small example from her experience at the famous 1963 March on Washington exemplifies this commitment. In typical Murray fashion, she attended with two groups that she felt represented her commitment to civil rights. Marching first with the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, she then veered off and found the delegation from St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery parish, her home church in New York, to watch the “oncoming multitudes” peacefully demand racial equality in an unequal country.
“What did you do on your summer vacation?”
Even now students may be answering that question in essays at the start of this new school year. Maybe you wrote such a paper years ago. No matter what you did or where you went this past summer, it was almost impossible to escape the heaviness of the headlines. #BringBackOurGirls has become a distant refrain, almost forgotten beneath the crush of summer tragedies:
Thousands of children traveled alone from Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees. Ebola deaths spread to more West African nations killing hundreds including many health workers. The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, took over major Iraqi cities and beheaded a U.S. journalist in Syria. Russia usurped Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency announced in late August that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” Gaza has been reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities. Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who might have started college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the waning days of August.
After such a summer, how can we do anything but scoff at Paul’s words from Romans?