Song in a Weary Throat

by Pauli Murray

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Song in a Weary Throat: an American Pilgrimage is the title of the posthumous memoirs of Pauli Murray, an extraordinarily accomplished African American woman who dedicated her life to overcoming barriers of race and gender and the cause civil rights. Born in Baltimore in 1910, she was raised in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, by an aunt who was a schoolteacher. She instilled in the young girl the importance of a good education.

Murray would put herself through Hunter College and earn a law degree at Howard University, where she graduated first in her class. Although this achievement should have entitled her to a fellowship at Harvard, it was denied her due to her gender. She would go on to an amazingly varied career, as a law clerk, college professor, civil-rights activist, poet, and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women. Never afraid of a challenge, late in life she became one of the first women to be ordained as an Episcopalian minister.

Her experience as a dual victim of both racism and sexism led her to create the term "Jane Crow" to describe this phenomenon, and was outspoken about the way in which even African American male civil rights leaders refused leadership roles in the movement to women.

Although a lifelong civil rights activist, Murray was startled by the aggressive rhetoric and personal style of her African American students at Brandeis during the political tumult of the late 1960s. She offers a reflective, nuanced response to the differences between herself and these students; her goal had always been to work within and reform the system, theirs was to overthrow the system to create a new order. "Breaking the code of respectability enforced by parents" can be, she says, "as formidable a psychological barrier to action as the prospect of police brutality."

In all, this is the rich and inspiring journey of a woman who combined an indomitable strength of character with the insight, sensitivity, and complexity of a poet.

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