Episcopalians seek honor for Pauli Murray

Staff WriterJuly 9, 2009 

  • The first of several book discussion groups devoted to Pauli Murray's memoir, "Proud Shoes," will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 at St. Joseph's Episcopal Church, 1902 W. Main St., Durham, 286-1064.

    An excerpt from Pauli Murray's poem, "Dark Testament":

    Hope is a crushed stalk

    Between clenched fingers.

    Hope is a bird's wing

    Broken by a stone.

    Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty --

    A word whispered with the wind,

    A dream of forty acres and a mule,

    A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest,

    A name and place for one's children

    And children's children at last ...

    Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Three bishops, a dozen priests and about 170 prominent residents squeezed into the red-bricked St. Titus Episcopal Church last week to celebrate the life of one of the city's daughters: an orphaned girl of African-American heritage who grew up in this congregation near N.C. Central University.

That woman, Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray, rose from humble beginnings to become a historian, lawyer, poet, activist and priest who, during her 75 years, broke so many barriers that there is often not room enough to list them.

This week, as delegates to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA meet in Anaheim, Calif., they will consider a resolution to add Murray's name to its official calendar, alongside the likes of John Wesley, founder of Methodism; Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits; and William Wilberforce, the British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade.

The inclusion of Murray's name, which requires the approval of two General Conventions, would, in effect, elevate her to the status of a saint in the Episcopal Church. Practically, that means Episcopal churches across the country could dedicate a Holy Eucharist service in her honor each year on the anniversary of her death, July 1, 1985.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, no evidence of miracles is needed to elevate someone to the calendar, and the process is collaborative: The entire church gets to weigh in.

"This woman is a seminal figure in the history of the South," said Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which is sponsoring the initiative. "Her family and her ancestry is a story in itself, both of the agony and horror of Jim Crow segregation and of the beauty and nobility that can be found in the midst of it."

The resolution to add Murray's name to the Episcopal calendar coincides with a larger community effort called the Pauli Murray Project. As part of the project, five murals depicting Murray were painted on Durham buildings, and a series of reading groups are being organized this fall to discuss Murray's 1956 memoir, "Proud Shoes." An audio documentary, a traveling exhibit, a children's book and other events are also in the works.

"When looking at 20th-century women, all roads lead to Pauli Murray," said Barbara Lau, director of the project at the Duke Human Rights Center.

Pauli Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore. Her mother died when she was 3, and her father sent her to live with her mother's parents and aunt in Durham. Both Murray's father and mother were of mixed-race ancestry, and her life, too, became a journey that crossed racial lines.

Murray graduated at the top of her class at Hillside High School and attended Hunter College in New York. She enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill for graduate school in 1938 but was denied entry because of her race. She wrote a letter to then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in protest and received a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt in response -- the first in a long correspondence the two women kept.

During her years at the Howard University School of Law, she participated in sit-ins and demonstrations and wrote about the growing civil rights movement for several publications. In 1944 she graduated first in her class and applied to Harvard University for an advanced degree in law. Despite a letter of recommendation from President Roosevelt, she was rejected once again because of her gender.

After becoming the first woman in a prominent New York law firm, she wrote a paper on state laws and race that became a foundational document for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that paved the way for public school integration.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Murray taught law in Ghana; was appointed to a commission on women by President John F. Kennedy; was a founding member, alongside Betty Friedan, of the National Organization for Women; and wrote two books and a collection of poems.

But she is beloved in the Episcopal Church because, at the age of 62, she enrolled in seminary and in 1977 became the church's first African-American female priest.

Delois Ward of Raleigh, who sat in the second-row pew at last week's service honoring Murray, said the first time she received communion at the hands of a female priest was when Murray celebrated Holy Eucharist at her church in Washington 30 years ago.

"I saw her as a woman who overcame obstacles," Ward said. "She saw them as challenges."

During last week's service, Murray was feted for fighting injustice and promoting reconciliation between races and genders. But those who have studied Murray said she did more than that.

She was a woman ahead of her time in the way she understood race, said Courtney Reid-Eaton, exhibitions director at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, who has studied Murray.

"She was a person of white and black heritage, and she addresses that complexity," Reid-Eaton said. "She believed in the interconnectedness of humanity and wanted to reconcile it all to God."

At a time when President Barack Obama, himself the product of a mixed race union, occupies the highest office in the land, Murray's life story appears to have another gift of saintliness: the gift of prophesy.

In 1978, when her memoir, "Proud Shoes," was reissued, Murray addressed her biracial heritage in the introduction: "The acceptance of the possibility of relatedness would do much to defuse the highly-charged discussions on race," she wrote. "Ultimately, it might help ease the transition to a more humane society."

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