As Black History Month comes to an end, we want to take time to celebrate the amazing contributions of Black Americans to the cause of justice. With this blog, we focus on stories of faith that intersect with movements for justice, particularly Reproductive Justice. In that vein, we have chosen to highlight a pioneer in Faith, Race, and Gender justice, Pauli Murray!

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was the first Black woman ordained as an episcopal priest. Born in 1920 in Baltimore Maryland she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents in Durham NC. At 16, they attended Hunter College and then Howard University Law school. Pauli Murray has the distinction of being the first Black woman to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School. Pauli’s pursuit of law was all in service to a larger quest for Justice. 

Pauli’s early academic and professional life was dedicated to the struggle for both racial and gender equality. Pauli coined the term “Jane Crow” to point out the unique ways race laws affected Black women specifically. In 1950, Pauli wrote the book States’ Laws on Race and Color, which future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called the “bible” of the civil rights movement. She is also a named author on a brief for Reed. vs. Reed,the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision that was the first to assert that the equal protection under the law clause of the 14 amendment protected against discrimination based on sex/gender. 

It’s not a stretch to say that Pauli Murray was pivotal in the advances made in both racial and gender justice in this country. During her career, she held positions at Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and Brandeis University. A lifelong activist fighting for the rights of women and Black folk, in 1973 Pauli entered the Episcopal church after being increasingly inspired by her connections with women in the Episcopal Church, thus joining an activist life with a faithful one.

In 1977, Pauli Murray became the first Black women ordained in the denomination, among the first class of women ever ordained in the denomination. Pauli continued to advocate for gender equality within the confines of the denomination. Throughout their life, Pauli Murray wrestled with gender identity. Though they never identified as transgender in life, in hindsight many scholars believe Pauli to be gender nonconforming, at the very least making them also the first queer Black person ordained by the denomination. In 1985, Pauli Murray died of pancreatic cancer. In 2012, the Episcopal church named Pauli as one of their Holy Women, Holy Men. According to Bishop Michael Curry, the current presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church, it is a recognition that honors “people whose lives have exemplified what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and make a difference in the world.” 

This Black History Month, we celebrate the life and contribution of this amazing person of faith who used their gifts to push the world toward justice! We encourage you to learn more about Pauli Murray by reading their autobiographies, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage and Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet.

Happy Black History Month!

Submitted by Rev. Kenyetta Chinwe, Faith Advocacy Coordinator — SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective

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