Song in a Weary Throat
In 1938, Pauli Murray was denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race. A few years later, she discovered that, even with a letter of support from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no woman could study at Harvard Law School. By 1977, however, the newly ordained Reverend Pauli Murray celebrated Holy Eucharist before an interracial congregation in the North Carolina Episcopalian church where her grandmother had been baptized as one of “Five Servant Children Belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith.” The energy, persistence, intelligence, and style required to bring about changes of that magnitude during a single lifetime make Murray’s autobiography an extraordinary narrative of personal and social history.
Murray was often so far ahead of the times that her name fails to appear as a pioneer or “famous first.” She organized a student-run study group on Negro culture and achievements at Hunter College more than thirty years before the demand for black history and Afro-American studies courses arose in the 1960’s. Jailed in 1940 for not taking the vacant seat closest to the rear of the bus, she and her friends tried to practice their sketchy knowledge of the techniques for nonviolent resistance that Mahatma Gandhi had developed. Her application to do graduate work at the University of North Carolina was the first to receive wide publicity and directly influenced children then in elementary school to follow her path—and ultimately achieve entry into programs unavailable in the state’s Negro colleges. (Forty years later, however, Murray sorrowfully declined an honorary degree because North Carolina was still engaged in fighting the federal guidelines for completing desegregation in its state universities.) As a law-student legal adviser to a group of undergraduate women lobbying for changes in Washington, D.C., public accommodation laws during World War II, she helped develop the sit-in tactics that were to be so massively successful twenty years down the road.
While she was a student at Howard University’s law school, Murray wrote a seminar paper which attacked the “separate but equal” principle of segregated school systems by asserting that its very existence placed Negroes “in an inferior social and legal position” and did violence to the personality of both black and white students—an argument enshrined ten years later in the wording of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Her systematic study of segregation laws for the women’s division of the Methodist church grew into States’ Laws on Race and Color (1950), the bible of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigns during the 1950’s. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956), in which she wrote about the free blacks, slaves, and slaveowners who were her ancestors, was one of the first stories to trace the roots of a Negro family. Murray also served on the committee on civil and political rights set up by President John F. Kennedy’s groundbreaking Commission on the Status of Women, drafted the memo that helped preserve the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex in the House-Senate conference over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and attended the meeting in Betty Friedan’s hotel room that resulted in formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage is a thoughtful, considered autobiography written by a mature woman practiced in historical analysis and interested in recording the course of her own development within the chronology of twentieth century social history. Murray knew from early childhood that she was born in the same month that the fledgling NAACP began publishing The Crisis. Her relatives took pride in the achievements of their race. Orphaned young, she was reared by her Aunt Pauline, a light-skinned teacher who had divorced her lighter-skinned husband when he decided to cross the color line and practice law as a white man. By the time she reached adolescence, Murray had also learned that extra effort and persistence were needed even to reach the starting line. Determined not to attend a segregated college, she did an extra year of high school in New York in order to gain admission to Hunter College; even so, she studied late every night to make up for the deficiencies of her southern schooling.
Murray had only one carefree year at Hunter before the Depression crashed down. Living at the Harlem YWCA with other women who worked and went to college, she suffered malnutrition despite a waitress job. In the summer of 1931, she rode the rails from California to the East, dressed in Scout pants and passing as a boy for the sake of safety. Through most of the 1930’s, she was unemployed or barely employed. A spell with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Worker’s Education...
(The entire section is 2013 words.)