Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Beloved Radical

Kenneth W. Mack in Boston Review:

During her long and contentious life that spanned much of the twentieth century, Pauli Murray (1910–1985) involved herself in nearly every progressive cause she could find. Yet the contributions of this black woman writer, activist, civil rights lawyer, feminist theorist, and Episcopal priest have largely escaped public attention. Murray earned a reputation as an idealist who saw the world differently from many of the activists who surrounded her. She also walked away from several important organizations and movements when they were at the height of their influence. At the same time, her actions have seemed prescient to those involved in many of the social movements that have subsequently claimed a piece of her legacy. Through her friendships and writings, Murray left a long list of people deeply influenced by her, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, social activist Marian Wright Edelman, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Murray’s life story deserves to be made available to the larger public, but how does one do so in a way that honors her own obdurate unwillingness to be reduced to any clear set of vectors—to be, in effect, agreeable?

I first encountered Murray’s posthumously published autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat (1987), tucked away in the basement of Princeton University’s Firestone Library, shelved with the books on black biography. One could immediately sense that there was something hidden among its pages. There were the photos of an unusually thin woman with short hair and a wry expression, the seemingly impossible life story, and the evident wanderlust that drove her from one form of activism to another. I was looking for books on black lawyers, but by the time I published my own account of Murray’s story I had discovered a multilayered life that reached far beyond the bounds of the legal field. To the modern reader—more attuned than previous generations to the complex intersectionality of identity politics—Murray seems to speak directly from the page.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)