Song in a Weary Throat

by Pauli Murray
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage is a memoir by American civil rights activist, lawyer and writer Pauli Murray. The autobiography features highlights of her career as a lawyer and experiences as a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Murray was a prominent scholar in the East Coast during the mid-twentieth century, and pursued law studies at Hunter College, Howard University and attained a J.S.D. degree at Yale Law School. One of the most illuminating details in the book—which is also a recurring theme throughout—is Murray's vulnerable position as both an African American citizen and as a woman.

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During a large portion of the twentieth century, African Americans, particularly women, faced discrimination, even in supposed "progressive" major cities in the Northeast that had no history of slavery or segregation laws. The discrimination that Murray experienced—like many other black women—were systemic.

Even if the discrimination applied against her by institutions or industries were not blatant, systems that were not in favor of African American women made it harder for scholars like her to find opportunities. For example, Harvard Law School rejected her application because of her gender, whilst University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill turned her down because of her race.

It showed that respected institutions were not immune from the bigotry plaguing the United States at the time, and that they allowed their bad judgment to reject one of the most talented intellectuals in American history. Throughout the book, the importance of attaining education is emphasized. It was the academic field that gave Murray the platform and background to launch Civil Rights campaigns, and then to befriend Eleanor Roosevelt in the process.

When Murray became an Episcopalian priest, she showed once again that she is a pioneer even outside of politics. The Episcopal church was known for having a predominantly white congregation, and almost all of the priests at the time were men. The memoir as a whole showed not only Murray's intellectual powers as an American scholar, but also her courage as an activist.

Song in a Weary Throat

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

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 Project put her in touch with union struggles and made her realize that oppression did not strike only at Negroes.

At the age of thirty, Murray entered Howard Law School, where the curriculum and training centered on civil rights. The faculty were dedicated to preparing Negro attorneys for the fight against Jim Crow statutes; the students did research for NAACP cases and fired hard questions at lawyers preparing to appear before the Supreme Court. Immersed in the struggle for racial equality, Murray slowly became aware of gender discrimination. Hunter College, with its rigorous academic tradition and female leadership, had served as a training ground for feminism, as had the strong women who surrounded Murray during her childhood. As the only woman in her class at Howard, however, she was excluded from the informal social contacts between faculty and male students, overlooked in class, and subjected to friendly but constant jokes. The post of Chief Justice of the Court of Peers—an office traditionally held by the top-ranked senior in the law school—was silently left vacant when she was the senior at the head of the class. The same professors who urged her to do a year of postgraduate work in order to join Howard’s law faculty would have been enraged had Harvard rejected an equally qualified male student on the basis of race. They were, however, simply amused that a woman had been so naïve as even to apply.

In the following fifteen years, Murray had ample opportunities to be turned down by various law firms and state agencies on the basis of both sex and race. After the changed climate of the late 1950’s led to a position with a prestigious firm, she was already middle-aged and therefore a triple minority in the company of young white males who were on the same rung of the career ladder. When she was awarded a fellowship for doctoral studies in law at Yale University, New Haven landlords suddenly discovered that their apartments were all rented; after becoming the first Negro—male or female—to be awarded a doctorate in juridical science from Yale, she could find no law school that was hiring women for faculty positions.

In recounting this arduous journey, Murray’s tone is generally calm, reflective, and assured. She looks back on history as she lived it with an impressive eye for details that convey the mood of the times, but she seldom delves into her personal moods or private emotions. It is evident that she drew important support from women; the account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s charismatic effect—and Murray’s ability to resist and criticize—adds a fascinating dimension to the tale. The spiritual crisis that led ultimately to the ministry began in the last hours of Aunt Pauline’s life. Although she could comfort her aunt by reading psalms and prayers, Murray writes that she was “agonizingly aware of my inadequacy, for as a lay person, I felt I had no authority to give a blessing.”

In the living as in the recollection, she may have constructed her life to leave little space for emotions. Her capacity for work is continually astounding. In 1960, for example, she pursued the interest in Africa which she (like many Negro Americans) was developing by offering her services to a newly opened school of law in Accra. Arriving when Ghana had just become a republic, she taught the first course in the country’s constitutional and administrative law. There were no appropriate legal textbooks or casebooks; Ghana lacked a professional bar and judges delivered opinions orally without written briefs or court transcripts. Furthermore, there was a dual system of antiquated English statutes and uncodified African customary law. Few of the students had gone to college; it was necessary to produce teaching materials and offer extra tutorial help while also creating appropriate standards and practices of professional behavior. Under that workload, Murray managed to write, with her colleague Leslie Rubin, the first textbook on the country’s law, published in 1961 as The Constitution and Government of Ghana.

As noted above, Murray was often so far in the vanguard that she failed to achieve recognition. Not until 1963, for example, did she accidentally find out that the team of NAACP lawyers who prepared the arguments for Brown v. Board of Education had read her senior paper and found her line of argument and her sociological and psychological references very useful; ten years earlier, apparently, law professors could appropriate the work of a woman student without even thinking to let her know that she had contributed to the creation of a judicial landmark. When, in the late 1960’s, Brandeis University hired her to help design an Afro-American studies program, students found her belief in industry, persuasion, and intelligent legal tactics antique and she—who had devoted forty years to fighting racial segregation—was startled to discover that Black Power demanded separate dormitories and cultural centers and courses to which no whites would be admitted.

Her description of the conflicts and sit-ins at Brandeis is humane, carefully honest, and sometimes amusing. Aware that some black male students used aggressive sexism to mask their anxiety over intellectual competition, she tried to master her resentment of their arrogance and sought ways to solve the immediate classroom problems. The complex generational attitudes are nicely epitomized in a passage on politically correct language:In 1968, “black” had political connotations closely allied with the ideology of separatism. It emphasized a black-white polarization that the term “Negro” did not convey, and its projection into settled usage had a disturbing effect. ... I was born during the era when “Colored” was the prevalent usage, along with the ignominious lowercase “negro” . . . During my college days in the early 1930s I routinely went through my textbooks, using a fountain pen to change the small n to capital N wherever I encountered the term “negro.” My generation of activists was part of a long struggle to elevate the designation to its capitalized form, so that “Negro” became a mark of dignity and respect. . . . The transition among many white Southerners from use of the contemptuous “niggers” to a grudging “nigras” and finally to “Knee-grows” had occurred in my lifetime. I felt that the reversion to lowercase “black” was a self-defeating step . . . . Nothing could dramatize more the symbolic demotion to second-class status.

Throughout her life, Pauli Murray systematically and persistently turned barriers into occasions for action. She had, she says, “spontaneously resisted racial injustice without waiting for others to join me.” Her strong individualism and emphasis on accomplishment—rather than entitlement—may have puzzled campus activists of the 1960’s. The reader of her autobiography, however, perceives that each new step in her career was a deliberate challenge to some social boundary imposed because of race or sex. Emotions such as anger or depression or fear or self-doubt were buried by deliberate and persistent action toward immediate goals, and each achievement became a platform for the next assault. She also shaped her feelings into essays, stories, poetry (including “Dark Testament,” which stirred thousands of people at a memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the family narrative Proud Shoes. Her mature reflection and literary skill make Song in a Weary Throat a deeply moving book as well as a fine example of the autobiography as exemplum.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

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Ebony. XLII, June, 1987, p. 27.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, March 1, 1987, p. 359.

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Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, February 13, 1987, p. 85.

The Wall Street Journal. March 26, 1987, p. 34.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, April 5, 1987, p. 3.

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