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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Renee

Pauli Murray | Legal Pioneer & Social Activist



Civil rights activist and legal scholar Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910-1985) played a critical role in many prominent human rights developments. In addition to co-founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, Pauli was the first Black woman to earn a Juris Doctorate from Yale University, and advocated for the inclusion of women speakers at the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech.


By the age of 13, Anne Pauline Murray (who adopted the gender-non-specific name “Pauli”) was orphaned and sent to live with relatives in Durham, North Carolina.


After graduating high school in 1926 and attending Hunter College, Pauli applied to the graduate program at the then-all-white University of North Carolina but was denied based on race.


Paul had also dreamt of attending Columbia University but was unable to since the institution did not admit women then. These experiences in which others used race and gender to block Pauli’s desired path informed their future efforts in fighting for both racial and gender equality.


Pauli wrote numerous articles and poems, some of which were published in The Crisis, a NAACP-sponsored publication. They also mobilized in the fight for civil rights, including taking part in a letter-writing campaign through which they would connect with Eleanor Roosevelt, who would remain a lifelong friend.


In 1940, Pauli was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus, 15 years before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.


That same year, Pauli would begin law school at Howard University, a program they would complete in 1944. During their time at Howard, they were subjected to both racial and gender discrimination, which led to their coining the phrase “Jane Crow.”


Pauli continued their studies at California Boalt School of Law after being rejected by Harvard University, an impediment that Pauli believed to be motivated by gender.


In 1960, Pauli visited Ghana and co-authored The Constitution and Government of Ghana. Upon returning to the US, they enrolled in Yale Law School and became the first Black woman to earn a Juris Doctorate from the institution in 1965.


In the early 1970s, Pauli worked with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gives Pauli credit for inspiring the amicus brief she wrote in response to Reed v. Reed, a prominent gender discrimination case.


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