Review: Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray

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Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, by Rosalind Rosenberg. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190656454. 512 pages. $29.95.

This happens to me all the time. I’ve never heard of something or someone and I see a documentary or read a book and suddenly I see that something or someone is all around me. That’s how it was with me and Pauli Murry. Recently I counted seventeen books by and about her. A documentary appeared on one of the pay channels about a year ago. But none of that caught my attention until after I read Jane Crow.

Author Rosalind Rosenberg details the life of Pauli Murray, a trans-black political activist of the twentieth century. Here’s how she put it. She wanted to be the male making love to the female. Events in Murray’s educational, personal and professional life are set against American history. Murray as a young woman law student struggling against Jim Crow and seeking equality: belonged to Communist Party Opposition, and worked for Negro People’s Committee to Aid Spanish Refugees (NPC). While picketing in Rhode Island, the police arrested her and took her to Bellevue. A month later Murray was arrested for creating a disturbance on a Greyhound Bus in Virginia and served a short jail term. But it was her failed efforts to stay the execution of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper who’d shot his employer when he refused to give Waller his quarter share of their wheat crop, that got her an invitation to the White House to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. Waller is dead nonetheless.

Anna Pauline Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, November 20, 1910, the fifth of seven children. Mixed race from both her mother’s and father’s sides, her origins included slaves and slave owners. Her family was intelligent and well-educated, yet subject to nervous collapses. Murray was orphaned at age three when her mother died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage during a seventh pregnancy. Right after that her father, Will Murry, always a violent man, now left with seven children, stopped going to work, paying the mortgage, and buying groceries, relying on hunting. Finally relatives intervened and had him committed to a mental hospital. The children were scattered among several relatives. Pauli went to Durham, North Carolina, to live with her mother’s sisters Aunt Sally and her Godmother, Aunt Pauline, both teachers and stabilizing forces in her life.

Even in childhood, Pauli experienced gender identity disorder. She felt she should be male and as an adult sought hormone treatments several times to no avail. She insisted she wasn’t lesbian, claiming she wanted a woman the way a man wants a woman. Most of her adult life, she had close women companions, but she moved around so much, for education and work, that the relationships were always difficult. She often suffered depression and checked in to mental hospitals when these affairs were over. Murray’s longest relationship was with Irene Barlow. They met at the Paul, Weiss law firm and remained close thereafter. When Irene died of cancer in 1973, Murray suffered inconsolable grief.

In 1926, Murray learned that perseverance had power. Before entering Hunter College, New York City’s public college for women, she had to take another year of high school as a result of being educated in a segregated black school system that didn’t offer the classes required for college. Later on, North Carolina’s law school rejected her application due to her race, and she couldn’t get admitted to Harvard School of Law because she was a woman, and no matter how many references and persuasive letters she produced, her applications were denied. She eventually earned her law degree at Howard University and the University of California. After she passed the bar, she couldn’t get a position at one firm because it only hired graduates of Harvard.

In 1963, she became one of the first to criticize the sexism in the civil rights movement. To Murray there was a place where discrimination because of race and gender intersected, and black women carried a double burden. Women in general and black women specifically were “Jane Crows.” The women’s movement was, at the time, a white women’s movement. Murray worked with both groups, but she believed the Fourteenth Amendment, the Equal Protection clause, and litigation, where discrimination cases made their way up through the justice system to the Supreme Court was a surer way to end discrimination.

Among others, Murray authored Proud Shoes, an account her family’s story. She compiled a book, State’s Laws on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshal called the “Bible” of civil rights litigators and acquired one for everyone on his staff. She brushed shoulders, for good or ill, with the civil rights leaders of her time. In the end she became one of the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. Pauli Murry is not as well-known as other civil rights leaders. This book, albeit intricate in detail and lengthy, provides the reader with a fresh point of view to American History as well as a witness to the legal growing pains for black lesbian women of the mid-twentieth century. Toward the end of her life, she was teaching, campaigned for tenure, and was finally awarded it, then she immediately moved on to become a priest.

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