The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2023 is 1943 Washington D.C., the setting of the novel that I’m writing. Visit daily in April for a new post on my topic.
M is for Pauli Murray
In mid-April 1943, years before the sit-ins that I learned about in history class, Pauli Murray, the only woman in her law class at Howard University, led a sit-in at the Little Palace Cafeteria near campus.
According to this article at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Digital Gateway,
Three students entered the cafeteria while one “observer” waited outside. They requested service, and when they were refused, took their seats and pulled out magazines, pencils, pads and poetry books. More students entered every five minutes until the café was filled with people awaiting service. Panicked and unwilling to serve Black students, management closed the cafeteria within forty-five minutes.
Later in the year, students staged sit-ins in other restaurants in downtown Washington, D.C. Eventually, the Howard University President put a stop to the actions for fear of losing federal money that supported the school.
According to her Wikipedia article, Pauli Murray was later denied post-graduate work at Harvard University, due to her gender. She was first in her class at Howard, a position that was traditionally awarded a fellowship for further study at Harvard. She coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the additional barriers that she faced as a woman.
In spite of Harvard’s rejection, Pauli Murray became a civil rights lawyer, participating in the movements of the 1950s and 60s to end racism. She was an early critic of sexism within the civil rights movement. Collaborating with other women, she published a landmark article called “Jane Crow and the Law” and successfully argued a case that gave women equal rights to serve on juries. Ruth Bader Ginsburg recognized her debt to Pauli Murray’s work in her 1971 brief for the Supreme Court that extended the 14th Amendment’s rights to women.
After a long career as a lawyer and academic, Pauli Murray became the first ordained African-American woman in the Episcopal Church in 1977 when she was in her mid-60s.
Modern scholars recognize that if Pauli Murray had the social supports and language of today that the gender expression of transgender man might have eased the struggles that Murray experienced with sexual and gender identity. There may come a day when my use of “woman” and “she/her” pronouns in this post will look dated. I don’t currently have the skills to describe the successful ways that Pauli Murray fought for women’s rights without that usage, but I’ll be happy to be corrected.