Interview by Dee Dee Perry
Throughout Pauli Murray’s earthly journey (1910–1985), the activist carried many labels: Black, Queer, Attorney, Professor, Poet, and Priest are only a few. Murray, a vocal African-American feminist who publicly identified as a woman, privately struggled with both sexuality and the confines of gender identity, and unsuccessfully sought gender-affirming care. During a remarkable career in the law and later as a theologian, Murray undoubtedly became one of the most pivotal figures of the Civil Rights Movement, and the fight for equality for Black and Brown, LGBTQ+, trans, and poor people in America. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall relied on Murray’s work and cited Murray as a hero. In 2012, the Episcopal Church elevated Murray to Sainthood. Yet most have never even heard Murray’s name… until now. Lindsay Dunn, an attorney and Board member of both DOJ Pride (an employee LGBTQ+ resource group), and the DOJ Gender Equality Network (an employee advocacy group where she co-lead a campaign for paid family leave), shares her personal thoughts on Murray, a national historical treasure.*
How have Murray’s life and work influenced you?
I tend to joke that I love Pauli Murray the way my friends love Beyoncé. I even have homemade Pauli Murray T-shirts. Murray is in so many ways the architect of the legal fight for what would become landmark Supreme Court decisions concerning racial equality, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ rights. My life, personal and professional, is possible because of Pauli Murray. In addition to so many other accomplishments and roles, Murray was responsible for providing eldercare to family members, and at one point also provided care for nephews. Murray, like so many of us organizing around these issues, had to juggle career with healthcare concerns, eldercare responsibilities, and care for an incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) loved one. In my own work fighting for civil rights and advocating for paid family leave, Murray serves as both inspiration and instruction.
How were you first introduced to Murray?
I don’t remember who was the first person to introduce Pauli Murray to me, but my mom, also a Black attorney, is always eager to insert Murray’s name and contributions into discussions about civil rights. She is that person who will lovingly ensure that someone wearing an “RBG” shirt also knows who Pauli Murray is. Notably, some of the specific instances of discrimination Murray faced while practicing law, as detailed in Murray’s memoir Song in a Weary Throat, are similar to those my mother and her peers continued to experience decades later. Murray also published Proud Shoes, which, years before Roots, traces Murray’s family history from the time of enslavement. At some point, as my own career as a lawyer began to take shape and we also started to trace our family history from the time of enslavement, Murray became someone my mom and I would call one another to chat about regularly. Murray’s legacy as a whole—as historian, activist, archivist, poet, priest, professor, legal theorist, lawyer, and generally, as genius—is tremendous.
It’s 2021, and Murray is finally starting to be recognized for genius and revolutionary activism (including DOJ Pride posthumously awarding Murray the Gerald B. Roemer Community Service Award for outstanding contributions to the LGBTQ+ community, and the release of the critically acclaimed documentary My Name is Pauli Murray). Why do you think it has taken decades for Murray to receive these long overdue flowers?
Murray was so far ahead of time that we are just now beginning to catch up. I also think that Murray’s accomplishments and contributions were often unfairly diminished, attributed to others, or simply erased. A self-proclaimed “rebel, instigator, and survivor, at times a nettle in the body politic, an opener of doors,” Murray’s career left, for so many of us, the inheritance of new possibilities. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the first Black Deputy Attorney General of California, the first Black person to earn a doctorate in juridical science from Yale University, and the first Black writer (alongside James Baldwin) to integrate the prestigious MacDowell Colony for artists. Though we now have a more complete understanding of Murray’s gender identity, Murray is also considered the first Black woman to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, something which others at the time thought would be impossible.
If you could ask Murray one question, what might that be?
Pauli Murray, what do we do with the world right now?
What do you hope most for the world to know about Pauli Murray?
In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks’ famous act of bravery, Murray, too, was jailed for refusing to move to the back of a Virginia bus in peaceful protest of segregation laws. One published account of the events described Murray as a man named “Oliver.” Murray, an orphan whose mother died and whose father was murdered, personally faced a lifetime of constant discrimination on so many fronts: Columbia University, my alma mater, for example, denied Murray’s acceptance to its undergraduate program on the basis of sex; University of North Carolina, on the basis of race; Harvard Law School, on the basis of sex. Murray was also institutionalized as a result of “queerness,” and later effectively prevented from procuring government and university employment during the McCarthy era. But, despite all this, Murray never gave up. Looking back on a lifetime of activism often decades ahead of its time, Murray offered this poignant reflection: “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”
*Views expressed are exclusively the personal views of the interviewee and do not represent positions of any government agency, organization, or administration. Both DOJ Pride and the DOJ Gender Equality Network are employee organizations that do not speak for the Department or any administration.
Dee Dee Perry is a lawyer in Brooklyn.