October 6, 2016

The Dynamic Woman Who Shaped Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Pauli Murray

photo by: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Pauli Murray, social and political activist.

UPDATE: Success! Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has announced her approval of the designation of Pauli Murray’s childhood home as a National Historic Landmark. The Secretary’s approval is a testament to the power of her life story, and to the strength of a nomination endorsed by NAACP, NOW, and other prestigious national organizations, authors, religious leaders, elected officials, family members of Ms. Murray, and the 2,500 individuals who signed our petition in support of the designation. Learn more about the Pauli Murray House.

Last month, Irin Carmon, co-author of the best-selling book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a letter addressed to Paul Loether, chief of the National Register of Historic Places/National Landmarks Programs, concerning the recent effort to make the childhood home of mid-20th century political and social activist Pauli Murray into a National Historic Landmark (NHL).

The impetus for contacting Loether stemmed from research gleaned for the book, which Carmon co-authored with Shana Knizhnik. Through their research, Carmon and Knizhnik discovered Pauli Murray, her often underrated achievements that nonetheless had national implications, and her profound impact on Justice Ginsburg's political convictions.

Below, Carmon writes a meaningful argument for why Murray, a name unknown to many, and her legacy concerning equality for African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community are overdue for national recognition.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

photo by: Wake Forest University School of Law

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, subject of the book "Notorious RBG," co-authored by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.

Dear Mr. Loether,

I write in support of the nomination of Pauli Murray’s house to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

I first became aware of Ms. Murray’s legacy when I co-authored Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, published last year by HarperCollins. Justice Ginsburg speaks often of the influence Murray had on her work. Indeed, it was Murray who came up with the legal strategy Ginsburg later employed to persuade the Supreme Court to bar sex discrimination in the absence of an equal rights amendment to the constitution: Applying the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to gender.

In 1961, Murray was appointed to the President's Commission on the Status of Women's Committee on Civil and Political Rights, during which she formulated her Fourteenth Amendment strategy. In 1966, she was one of thirty co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which she labeled "the NAACP for women." She was already practiced in holding accountable male civil rights leaders on gender, and soon did the same with white women’s groups on race.

In 1965, while at the ACLU, Murray found a case that mirrored how, in her own life, race and sex were inextricable. She and a team filed a federal lawsuit that challenged how the jury that acquitted the murderers in Selma had been put together—arguing that the county had systematically excluded black male citizens and “female citizens of both races” from the jury. In an unprecedented win, a panel of federal judges in Alabama adopted Murray's argument that the interlocking exclusions violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Murray’s influence on Ginsburg was so profound that in 1971, Ginsburg’s first brief to the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed listed Murray and her ACLU colleague Dorothy Kenyon, though neither had directly participated in its writing. “We owed them so much, for they kept the idea—and the hope—alive,” Ginsburg later said. She won, the first time the Supreme Court ever struck down a classification based on gender, and laying the groundwork for successive wins at the highest court that transformed American law and life.

As I wrote in the New York Times recently, Murray was ahead of her time in more than one way: She was “arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of a bus 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycott and for participating in restaurant sit-ins in the early 1940s, long before the 1960 sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter. She led a national campaign on behalf of a black sharecropper on death row.” Her gender identity and sexuality were cruelly treated as pathologies.

Murray’s life and work represent both the promise and tragedy of America, braiding together different streams of history: women’s history, African American history, LGBT history. That so many of her dreams were deferred stands as a testament to how intersecting prejudices block even the most brilliant and hardworking from their due.

“We’re standing on their shoulders,” is how Ginsburg explained her Reed v. Reed gesture. “We’re saying the same things they said, but now at last society is ready to listen.” Designating Murray’s home as a National Historic Site would truly show society is finally ready to listen to what Murray was trying to tell us.


Irin Carmon

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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