Pauli Murray in 1955 Celebrating Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (Source: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Tribute to the Queer Faith and Civil Rights Leadership of Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray

As we commemorate Black History Month, we believe it is essential to shine a light on the trailblazers who have significantly impacted both the civil rights movement and the journey towards queer acceptance in faith communities. Among these luminaries, we want to celebrate Dr. Rev. Pauli Murray, whose life and legacy continue to inspire many, especially within queer-centric faith-based groups.

In this blog, we use “they/them” pronouns for Pauli Murray to honor their complex gender identity, as reflected in their own writings and aligned with today’s understanding of non-binary identities. During Murray’s time, societal and linguistic recognition of such identities was limited, restricting their ability to fully express their gender experience. Using they/them pronouns respects the nuances of Murray’s identity and affirms their significance in both history and the LGBTQ+ community.

Early Life and Pioneering Spirit of Pauli Murray

Born on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray encountered significant challenges early on when, at three, their mother died and their father struggled with mental health issues, leading Pauli and siblings to be raised by their Aunt Pauline Fitzgerald Dame and Sally Fitzgerald in Durham, North Carolina.  


Education and Intellectual Awakening 

Aunt Pauline, who would later adopt Pauli, was a schoolteacher and their family emphasized the importance of education and intellectual curiosity. Pauli attended the racially segregated public schools in Durham, was an avid reader, and showed an early talent for writing. Their education in Durham laid the groundwork for their later achievements, but it also exposed them to the systemic barriers they would spend their life fighting against. 

Gender Identity and Early Experiences 

From an early age, Pauli Murray felt a deep incongruence between their assigned sex at birth and their internal sense of self. In their own writings, Murray described experiencing what would be understood today as gender dysphoria. They often dressed in more masculine clothing and engaged in behaviors that defied the strict gender norms of the time. Murray’s personal correspondence and diaries reveal a person deeply introspective and often in turmoil over their gender identity, seeking ways to align their physical body with their internal sense of self. 

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray as a child.
Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray as a young child. (Source Kalamu ya Salaam)
Pauli Murray as a young adult.
Pauli Murray as a young person (Source: Kalamu ya Salaam)

Encounters with the Medical and Mental Health Systems 

In the 1930s and 1940s, Pauli Murray sought medical insight into their feelings regarding their gender identity, facing a medical community that misunderstood and pathologized gender nonconformity. Their quest for identity was met with resistance. Whereas now, the broad consensus of medical and mental healthcare professionals recognizes and affirms diverse gender identities, this was a period when transgender identities were pathologized and treated as disorders. Today, significant advances in recognizing and supporting diverse gender identities are continually transforming healthcare and societal understanding, inspired by trailblazers like Murray. 

The Loves of Pauli Murray 

Pauli was married to a man named William Roy Wynn in 1930. However, this relationship only lasted a few months before they parted ways. Wynn and Murray would not see each other again until 1949, when they contacted him to have their marriage annulled. 

Significant Relationships

Throughout their life, Murray had significant romantic relationships with women. These relationships were an essential part of their private life, offering emotional support and companionship. However, due to the prevailing attitudes towards queer identities during much of the 20th century, these relationships were not something Murray could openly celebrate or acknowledge without facing discrimination and prejudice. 

One of the most documented relationships was with Irene Barlow, whom Murray met while working at a law firm in New York. Barlow and Murray formed a close partnership, and after Barlow’s death in 1973, Murray was deeply affected, describing Barlow as their “life partner.” The depth of their relationship is evident in Murray’s writings and the impact Barlow’s death had on them. 

Today, as societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ identities have evolved, there is a greater appreciation and recognition of the diversity of human relationships and the importance of understanding historical figures like Pauli Murray in their full complexity. Murray’s life and relationships offer valuable insights into the experiences of queer individuals in the mid-20th century, highlighting both the progress that has been made and the ongoing struggles for acceptance and equality. 

Pauli with their girlfriend Peggy Holmes, who they met at the New Deal Women's Camp.
Pauli with their girlfriend Peggy Holmes, who they met at the New Deal Women’s Camp. (Source: History is Gay Podcast)

Advocate for Justice

Pauli Murray’s contributions to civil rights and gender equality are monumental. Graduating top of their class from Howard University’s law school, they coined the term “Jane Crow,” highlighting the intersection of racial and gender discrimination. Their legal theories and writings, including the groundbreaking book “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” laid the intellectual groundwork for dismantling segregation and were instrumental in landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Furthermore, their advocacy did not stop at racial equality; Murray’s insights into gender discrimination influenced future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recognized Murray’s work in her legal arguments for gender equality.


“Black women, historically, have been doubly victimized by the twin immoralities of Jim Crow and Jane Crow. … Black women, faced with these dual barriers, have often found that sex bias is more formidable than racial bias.” Pauli Murray



Pauli Murray with Thelma Stevens reviewing a draft of State Laws
Pauli Murray with Thelma Stevens (left) reviewing a draft of state laws, 1949. (Source: Pauli Murray Papers, Schlesinger Library for the History of Women at Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)
Pauli Murray with Elenore Roosevelt
Pauli Murray with Elenor Roosevelt, in 1962 on a trip to Val-Kill Cottage, Hyde Park (Source: History is Gay Podcast)
“For me, becoming friends with MrsRoosevelt was a slow, painful process…” Pauli Murray


The First Lady

Pauli Murray had a notable correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. This relationship began in the late 1930s when Murray, then a young activist and student, wrote to Roosevelt to express her views on civil rights and social justice issues. Initially, Murray’s letters were critical of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration for not taking stronger action against racial discrimination. Despite the critical tone of these early letters, Eleanor Roosevelt responded, marking the beginning of a long-lasting correspondence and evolving relationship between the two women. 

The Nature of This Correspondence 

The exchange of letters between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt grew over the years, with Murray often sharing her perspectives on civil rights, women’s rights, and the need for social reforms.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s encouragement and recognition played a significant role in validating Murray’s efforts as a young activist.   

Legacy of Their Relationship 

The relationship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt is documented in their surviving letters, which have been studied by historians and scholars as an important record of early civil rights and feminist activism. The correspondence illustrates the impact of personal relationships in the broader context of social and political change.  

Years after their correspondence began, Murray reflected on Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence, noting how the First Lady’s support and acknowledgment had bolstered her resolve to fight for justice. 

Queer Faith Journey and Ordination 

Perhaps the most transformative chapter of Pauli’s life was their ordination as an Episcopal priest in 1977. Their faith journey was a testament to their belief in inclusivity and love, transcending traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality within religious spaces.  

Early Religious Influences 

Raised in the Episcopal Church, Pauli Murray was deeply influenced by the Christian teachings of love, justice, and equality from an early age. Their faith was nurtured by their family, especially their Aunt Pauline, who ensured that young Pauli was involved in church activities. This early religious grounding laid the foundation for Murray’s belief in the power of faith to inspire social change. 

Faith as a Source of Strength 

Throughout their life, Murray turned to their faith during times of personal struggle and societal challenge. They viewed their activism and fight for civil rights not only as a legal and moral endeavor but as a spiritual calling. Murray’s writings often reflect this synthesis of faith and activism, seeing no contradiction between the two and often citing religious principles as the basis for justice and equality. 

Decision to Pursue Ordination 

In the latter part of their career, after achieving significant milestones as a lawyer, professor, and writer, Murray felt a renewed call to direct service through the church. This decision was influenced by several factors, including the death of their close friend Irene Barlow, which deepened Murray’s contemplation of life, death, and purpose. Additionally, the Episcopal Church’s movement towards ordaining women to the priesthood opened a path that had previously been closed to Murray. 


Rev. Pauli Murray being ordained as an Episcopal Priest
The Rev. Pauli Murray is shown as they become ordained at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 1977. (AP Photo via RNS)


“When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.” Pauli Murray

Ordination and Spiritual Legacy 

Pauli Murray was ordained as an Episcopal priest on January 8, 1977, becoming one of the first “women”—and the first “woman” of color—to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Their ordination was a historic moment, symbolizing not only personal achievement but also the breaking of long-standing barriers within the Christian religion. 

As a priest, Murray served at the Church of the Atonement in Washington, D.C., and later at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore. Their ministry focused on reconciliation, community service, and the inclusion of marginalized voices within the church. Murray’s sermons and pastoral work continued to reflect their lifelong commitment to social justice, framed within the context of Christian teachings on love, forgiveness, and human dignity. 

Murray’s faith and ordination are a testament to their belief in the potential for religious institutions to be forces for social change. They envisioned a church that welcomed all—a vision that continues to inspire religious and social justice communities today. 

Pauli Murray’s legacy in the Episcopal Church is commemorated in the liturgical calendar, with July 1 designated as their feast day. This recognition honors their contributions to civil rights and gender equality and to the spiritual life of the church and its journey toward inclusivity and justice. 

“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.” Pauli Murray

Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray
Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (Source: Dr. Rev. Pauli Murrayy)


Pauli Murray: Further Exploration

For those interested in delving deeper into the life and legacy of Dr. Rev. Pauli Murray, numerous resources are available. Their autobiographies, “Proud Shoes” and “Song in a Weary Throat,” offer intimate glimpses into their personal and professional struggles and triumphs. Additionally, the documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” provides a comprehensive overview of their remarkable contributions to civil rights, gender equality, and the Episcopal Church. 

Pauli Murray’s legacy, deeply intertwined with their unwavering faith, serves as a beacon of hope and a call to action, inspiring us to envision and work towards a world where justice, equality, and love are not ideals but realities for all. Their journey as both a spiritual leader and a tireless advocate for civil rights exemplifies how faith can be a powerful force for social change, motivating us to challenge injustices and strive for a more inclusive and compassionate community. Pauli’s life teaches us that faith, when coupled with action, can transcend barriers, and transform societies, encouraging us today to continue their work in creating spaces where every individual is valued and embraced for who they are, fully and authentically. Through their example, we are reminded that our beliefs and convictions can and should propel us towards creating a more just and equitable world, honoring Pauli Murray’s memory and legacy not only during Black History Month but in our daily lives and actions. 

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References & Recommendations About Pauli Murray

Books by Pauli Murray 

Murray, Pauli. “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.” Harper & Brothers, 1956. A memoir that traces the lives of Murray’s maternal grandparents in the post-Civil War South. 

Murray, Pauli. “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage.” Harper & Row, 1987. An autobiography that details Murray’s personal and professional struggles against injustices over their lifetime. 

Murray, Pauli. “Dark Testament and Other Poems.” Silvermine Publishers, 1970. A collection of Murray’s poetry reflecting on racial and gender injustices, as well as their hopes for a just society. 

Relevant Websites 

Pauli Murray Project at Yale University. – A project dedicated to teaching and researching Pauli Murray’s life and legacy. 

Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. – Focuses on preserving Pauli Murray’s childhood home and promoting their vision for an inclusive America. 

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. – Highlights Pauli Murray’s contributions to the Episcopal Church and their sainthood. 

Other Relevant Books and Articles: Jane Crow, Dream of Freedom, and Black Queer Freedom

Rosenberg, Rosalind. “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray.” Oxford University Press, 2017. A comprehensive biography that explores Murray’s contributions to civil rights, feminism, and the law, as well as their personal journey with gender identity. 

Azaransky, Sarah. “The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith.” Oxford University Press, 2011. Discusses Murray’s religious beliefs and how they informed their activism and legal work. 

Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. “Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950.” W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Provides context for Murray’s activism within the larger civil rights movement. 

Capers, Brittney C. “Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Paths of Desire.” New Black Studies Series, University of Illinois Press, 2020. Explores the intersections of Black and queer identities, providing a framework for understanding figures like Pauli Murray. 

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