This post is part of Black Perspectives' forum on Black Women and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
According to her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat, Pauli Murray entered Howard University Law School in 1941 with the sole intention of ending Jim Crow. The Hunter College graduate spent much of the previous decade struggling to survive in Depression-era New York. She worked low-wage jobs in various Communist organizations before joining the federally funded, Works Progress Administration. As that project waned, Murray entered a period of deep vocational discernment during the fall of 1938. She opted for a primary career in law over creative writing after a series of life-changing events that transpired during an intense two-year period.
In December of 1938, Murray was rejected by the University of North Carolina on account of her race. The native North Carolinian hoped to be the first Black person admitted to their graduate school. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada fueled Murray’s ambition. In that case, Lloyd Gaines was denied admittance into the University of Missouri School of Law because he was Black. Missouri law supported and accommodated provided for segregation in the education system. However, its only post-secondary school for African Americans—Lincoln University— did not have a law program. Gaines and his NAACP legal team argued that his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law was violated because he would have to cross state lines for a separate education. The Court agreed, and it ruled that the state had to either admit Gaines or create a “separate but equal” law school for Black students. The state complied by establishing a segregated facility for Lloyd Gaines, but he mysteriously disappeared before he could matriculate. Galvanized by Gaines, Murray cited the ruling as she appealed her UNC denial letter, but to no avail. Both the university and the North Carolina state legislature refused to desegregate. Murray’s case was picked up by the press. While she did not want national attention, the incident allowed her to forge a personal friendship and a political alliance with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Following her rejection from UNC, Pauli Murray focused her energies in three areas: writing, organizing, and studying the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1939, she began working on her poetry book, Dark Testament, and a biography of her maternal family, Proud Shoes. Incidentally, her great-grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was the granddaughter and slave of one of the original trustees of UNC. That same year, Murray began working with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Workers Defense League to bring national attention to the plight of Black and white sharecroppers in the South. Her work with these organizations allowed her to test the effectiveness of Gandhi’s theory and method of nonviolent resistance in the South.
On a trip from Virginia to her family’s home in Durham, North Carolina, Murray entered the white section of a Greyhound bus to request more comfortable seating for her and her companion, Adelene McBean. The women were arrested after a verbal altercation with the white bus driver. With support from Eleanor Roosevelt, the NAACP, and several civil rights organizations, Murray and McBean got off with a fine. Although the legal ordeal that ensued did not strike down segregation in public transportation in Virginia, Murray concluded that nonviolent resistance was a “powerful weapon” in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity.