Pauli Murray: A Lesson in Grit on the Journey to Justice

The following are remarks delivered by Dean Danielle Conway at the “Singing of a New American: Pauli Murray’s Legacy and Justice in the 21st Century” symposium. This one-day symposium was hosted by the Howard University School of Law Constitutional Law Center in honor of civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was an American civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, professor, author, poet, and the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She is known for being ahead of her time and an intellectual force behind the civil rights movement for women and people. Other speakers at this symposium included the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dr. Patricia Bell-Scott, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, Bishop Barbara Harris, and others.

Dean Danielle Conway at Singing of a New American SymposiumThe Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray’s legacy of passionate American patriotism is both a gift and roadmap to all who seek justice in an imperfect world. Knowing that one’s origin story and lived experiences form part of a larger, more intricate tapestry, Pauli Murray was compelled to document how she negotiated many identities of being – woman, black, transgendered. We are able to glean much about justice and equality from Pauli Murray because her body of work proved to be the first field manual for the struggle against all forms of discrimination.

Having no manual herself is not to say she was without mentors, role models, and muses. It is merely the recognition that the trifecta of exclusion that resulted from being born black, woman, and transgendered just a few generations removed from the great American stain of slavery proved to be a uniquely intimate experience with inhumanity that many of her contemporaries could not have imagined, let alone, withstood.

What Pauli Murray contributed to America was her commitment to the quest for her own enlightenment and the enlightenment of others, while chronicling her experiences in the struggle for justice, inclusion, and dignity.  Even posthumously, she gives a voice to all members of society – especially those who have been “othered” by race, gender, status as laborer or soldier; and to children, the poor, the deprived, and the infirm – to demand equality and respect. Pauli Murray’s journey is significant because of her first-person articulation of how gender influences the lived experience of someone from a certain race and how race impacts the lived experience of someone identifying with a certain sex.

In so doing, she authored the seminal manual – especially for women of color – on how to survive, aspire, and thrive in a country scarred by its history with slavery and ravaged by Jim Crow’s voracious rampage on black bodies and minds.  As well, she gave voice to women who labored under what she herself identified as “Jane Crow.” As an African-American woman, lawyer, dean, mother, spouse, and leader – with over 27 years of active and reserve service to an America I have sworn to defend – Pauli Murray’s manual on justice has taught me to use my industry, gumption, and grit to be self-determined, yes; but to also acknowledge the strong bonds that an American collective can forge when universal equality is prominently featured as a core value.

Grit is that combination of passion, perseverance, and persistence; in Pauli Murray’s case, it was the recipe for mind-mapping the strategy for achieving our democracy’s binding core value – equal protection.

What is remarkable about Pauli Murray’s path is that every step of her journey toward this goal – and, in turn, her own self-actualization – seemed unceasingly haunted by her own insecurities. From losing her parents early in her childhood to experiencing chronic poverty, Pauli Murray’s orbit would seem to predict failure. Two things stand out about this pioneering woman that made failure NOT an option: first, she believed fervently that education paved the way for achieving universal equality; and second, she drew a line in the sand between fascism and democracy.

No matter what obstacles were presented by her internal struggles with self-determination, Pauli Murray never doubted for one moment that the rule of law in a democracy means that every person is entitled to equal protection under the laws and that citizens have fundamental rights, rights so deeply rooted that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.

Pauli Murray used all of her passion, perseverance, and persistence to wage both small- and large-scale battles in defense of universal equality. Her battle theaters included: the classroom, the lunch counter, the transportation network, the courtroom, the print media, personal correspondence, the scholarly journal, and the church. Pauli Murray demonstrated that rights are not given; rather, rights are demanded.  And in demanding – through nonviolent protest and organized resistance – one woman can liberate her nation.

“What does Pauli Murray teach us about justice and equality in the 21st century?”

Pictured top right: Dean Danielle Conway and Dr. Patricia Bell-Scott; Pictured bottom right: Dean Danielle Holley-Walker, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Professor Lisa Croons-RobinsonPauli Murray teaches us that justice and equality are context-dependent, an observation that highlights one of the most significant features of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This point also illuminates a salient lesson from Pauli Murray’s life: achieving self-determination through myriad forms of expression is to comprehend one’s own unique voice, identity, and experiences in this world, while simultaneously drawing on these sources of “knowing and being” produces the formula for a vibrant democracy. Stated another way, expressions of the self-determined identity – as opposed to the mere performance of identity – will unlock the yet unknown and, thus, untested facets of the 14th Amendment.

Pauli Murray used her life and her experiences as a lens to view the power and the promise of a more just and a more equal society. Her achievements demonstrate that grit and an active commitment to full inclusion will guarantee humanity’s triumph over inhumanity in this new Century.