October 12, 2016

How the "Visionary" Founder of NOW Speaks To Equality Today

Pauli Murray in the early 1960s.

photo by: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Political and social activist Pauli Murray (1910-1985).

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.

The life of Pauli Murray is a vibrant and distinct one. Among Murray's numerous achievements in politics, faith, law, and literature, she became the first black woman to both earn a degree from Yale Law School and become an Episcopal priest. Undoubtedly, she set the bar high for those who have followed in her determined footsteps for the past 60 years.

Below, Marian Wright Edelman, Murray's friend and activist in her own right as founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, shares Murray's accomplishments a letter to Paul Loether, chief of the National Register of Historic Places/National Landmarks Programs. By designating the childhood home of such an illustrious woman as a National Historic Landmark (NHL), Edelman writes, the nation's story of its fight for equality can be told more completely.

Marian Wright Edelman

photo by: CT Senate Democrats/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.

Dear Mr. Loether,

I write to strongly support the nomination of the Pauli Murray Family home as a National Historic Landmark. Pauli Murray, a friend and mentor to me, was a woman far ahead of her time. She was a visionary, connecting civil rights for African Americans to the fight for women’s equality through her work as a lawyer, legal scholar, activist, writer, poet and finally as an Episcopal priest.

Pauli Murray fought throughout her life for a world where she and everyone else would have the freedom to embrace their full identities and be treated equally as individuals without discrimination or exclusion. We need more role models like Pauli and we need to champion her life of achievement and struggle.

Pauli Murray was the first African American to earn a Doctorate of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School and now the University has named a new college under construction for her. I met her when I entered Yale Law School in 1960 and was blessed with her counsel and advice until I graduated in 1963. By the time she arrived she had already published landmark books and earned degrees from Hunter College, Howard Law and UC Berkeley.

She and I and fellow Black women students like Eleanor Holmes Norton and Inez Smith Reid banded together to resist the discrimination we experienced in the Law School dorms and even some classes. But this was not new to Pauli. She had been turned away from UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate school because of her race and Harvard Law School because of her gender. We really knew what Pauli meant when she coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe our experiences.

Now, more than ever, it is important that we recognize the major contributions she made to the advancement of justice and freedom in the United States. Pauli Murray believed in a legal system that ensured access to education, employment, opportunity and capital for women, a fight that continues today. She used the metaphor of a relay race to describe these efforts, recognizing that she picked up the baton from others and would hand it off when she could no longer march, write and speak.

Pauli Murray drew from her humble roots in a family of strong women, self-sufficient educators, and committed citizens to become a consultant to President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At the restored family home, her story will inspire visitors of all ages and give them a more authentic understanding of our nation’s history especially as it relates to today’s issues and struggles for equality for all.

She was a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and a member of the Equality Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She successfully lobbied the U.S. Senate to add “sex” as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I strongly believe this merits national recognition of her family home through the National Historic Landmark designation.

Please give this nomination every consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Marian Wright Edelman

Founder and President, Children's Defense Fund

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and an 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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