Dr. Pauli Murray: The Civil Rights Activist at the Center of This Year’s MLK Commemoration

Each year, as a part of our commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, the entire school gathers around a central theme to recognize the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and influential figures that embody the values that Dr. King exemplified.
Honoring Dr. King’s legacy of peace and activism, this year’s MLK programming focused on an unsung hero of the 20th Century and freedom fighter for gender equality and civil rights: Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray.

In the classroom, Middle and High School students learned about Dr. Murray’s numerous legal, political and scholarly contributions to the Civil Rights Movements, as well as their struggles being a Black, nonbinary American during the era of segregation. Dr. Murray was a lawyer, poet, author, activist and Episcopal priest. Their contributions were vital to the Civil Rights Movement but they largely remain an unknown figure of this time. Inspired by their own experiences, Dr. Murray coined the term “Jane Crow”—a phrase highlighting the intersections of sexism and racism, as they often felt discrimination from multiple fronts as a Black female-presenting person. They were denied enrollment as an undergraduate to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of racist admissions policies, instead attending Howard University, graduating at the top of their class, and earning an opportunity to do graduate work at Harvard Law School only to face sexist admissions policies that closed another door. This same notion of intersecting oppressions is what we would refer to as “Intersectionality” today.  

Despite these challenges, Dr. Murray worked hard to combat injustices. After being the first African American to graduate with a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law School, they were appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. An inspiration to many of our role models, their 1950 published work States’ Laws on Race and Color helped build the basis for Thurgood Marshall’s argument in Brown v. Board of Education, and they were credited in assisting Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s legal argument for Reed v. Reed—the first Supreme Court Case that ruled gender discrimination as unconstitutional. They co-founded the National Organization for Women alongside Betty Friedan, and taught some of the first gender and ethnic studies classes at Brandeis University before attending General Theological Seminary and becoming the first Black person perceived as a woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Their mission led them to DC, where they worked with the sick.

As they were accomplishing much in their professional and ecclesiastical careers, Dr. Murray struggled with their gender identity. They kept quiet about their gender dysphoria and mental health struggles and sought out help from doctors at a time when resources about transgender identities or gender-affirming care were limited. Like Dr. Murray, we all have visible and invisible identities—parts of ourselves that people can see or make assumptions about, and those that lie beneath the surface. Thus, the theme for this year’s MLK Peace Program is “Visible and Invisible Selves.” Across all divisions, students and teachers have dove head first into Dr. Murray’s story, and have been exploring how their own intersecting identities contribute to the rich and diverse community we call Grace.

On January 12, Lower, Middle and High School students participated in the annual MLK Peace March and attended a celebratory chapel service. For the following three days, High School students and staff will participate in a three-day symposium, with student-led workshops, performances by Grace Church High School musical groups, and a keynote speech and performance by Mwenso and the Shakes, a jazz and roots band showcasing the Black ancestral diaspora through music. 

To learn more about Pauli Murray and their story, please click here.
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Grace Church School is a co-educational independent school in downtown Manhattan, New York City providing instruction for nearly 800 students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.