Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In her autobiography, attorney and civil rights activist Pauli Murray chronicles her journey from childhood poverty in North Carolina through her career as an attorney, pastor, and professor. In this highly personal account, one theme that emerges strongly is the value of persistence: Murray was no doubt the kind of person who would not take no for an answer. But neither does she credit her success merely to her tenacity, nor does she focus solely on her individual situation. An important overarching theme is the changing strategies and tactics of the civil rights movement throughout the twentieth century. As specific milestones were achieved, the need for additional change or the revelation of additional, often intractable problems also came about. A corollary is the greater longevity of certain methods than is often recognized. Murray, for example, fought segregation on public transportation by sitting in “white” bus seats in 1940. Similarly, her studies and advocacy of Gandhian civil disobedience predated the 1960s sit-ins.
Murray, often at forefront of instigating such changes, also learned that recognition for her efforts was not always forthcoming. Born in the 1910s, Murray originally entered college during the Depression, which quickly took its toll; and she had to leave and return to school several times. By the time the major push for the legal dismantling of segregation was underway, Murray was already in her forties. A third theme present throughout her book is the double discrimination of race and gender. Very few African American women were gaining advanced degrees or law degrees, even from an HBCU such as Howard, and Murray found that gendered discrimination often went unnoticed in the struggle for race-based civil rights.
An interesting perspective on the relationship between the United States and African nations’ independence suggests the theme of international cooperation. As a legal scholar, Murray was invited by the government of the newly independent Ghana in 1960. She not only helped established their law school, but participated in drafting the new national constitution.