Revolution, Poetry, & Faith: Reflections on the Life of Rev. Pauli Murray
Racial Justice & the Unconventional Activist
Jayme Goodwin, UC Berkeley Alum
Rev. Pauli Murray: Revisiting her Connections with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhism, and Civil Rights
Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria, Institute for South Asia Studies
I will revisit the intriguing story of Rev. Pauli Murray, known also as ‘North Carolina’s Daughter’. Pauli, as I shall refer to her, was a great granddaughter of an enslaved woman who was raped, and at 28 was instrumental in launching a one-woman war against segregation at the University of North Carolina in late 1938 to get an M A in social work, despite being told by the chair of the department that the ‘time was not right’. A mandate for equal institutions enabling black graduate admissions was there in Plessy vs Ferguson since 1896, but this Supreme Court ruling had been so universally defied that its verdict had all but been forgotten. But not in the mind of Murray; she used all the force of her soul to challenge the obverse archaic practice, especially in a liberal southern sacred cow. While the NAACP was constrained itself from moving too fast in this challenge, especially in the movement’s litigation experience and power, Pauli was not to be deterred; she, as we say in the vernacular, ploughed right into the system. She had already been scarred and hardened by her experiences with Durham’s bus segregation practices which she had protested against. She protested against Jim Crow’s repression of her body, and chose to be a homosexual against prevailing norms. She worked with women’s worker camp which brought her in close contact with communist workers’ movements, and became a member of an alternative Communist Party while growing up and working her way through Hunter College in New York. Drawn back to Durham where a group of blacks were already contemplating testing UNC’s desegregation policy, she was more bold and drew parallels between the unconstitutional American educational system – that segregated Blacks – and the persecution of Jews that was afoot in Nazi Germany! Eleanor Roosevelt for her part never forgot her experience of India and the few lessons the Indians, wearied by a dreadful colonial past, had imparted to her by their own forthrightness. Her sympathy for Pauli Murray’s more engaged and activist approach that was as much informed by her communist predilections as by the Gandhian nonviolent method grew after her Indian exposure, and she could fully embrace the saintlike persona of Martin Luther King Jr not only because he symbolized the centurylong struggle postslavery for Black liberation, but also because he bore all the hallmarks of a Gandhian prophet being raised on the American soil. Could Pauli Murray then be called a Gay Gandhian Saint?