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Leading From Behind: Woman Power in the Civil Rights Movement, Part 1

By Rodney K. Strong

Presented by Omni-University

[Ancestor] Pauli Murray

Most Americans are familiar with the most prominent male leaders of the Classic Civil Rights movement. During this period, from 1954 to 1968, the African American struggle resulted in an end to legal racial segregation. Leaders such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are well known. But, there were also many unsung individuals, both men, and women, who contributed greatly to the movement. Three women, in particular, were pivotal and critical to the ultimate success of the movement. Each of these women, who will be highlighted here, altered the course of the Civil Rights movement in essential ways.

[Ancestors] Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer changed American history and, therefore, deserve to be better understood and celebrated. This is the first of a three-part series of posts in which I will outline the basic biographies of each of these women and discuss their unique contribution to the movement for racial justice.

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland. Orphaned as a young child, she was raised by her maternal aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. At the age of 16, she enrolled at Hunter College, City University of New York, and graduated, in 1933, with a degree in English. In 1940, she sat in the "whites only" section of a bus in Virginia and was arrested for violating the racial segregation laws of that state. As a result of that experience, Murray decided to enroll at Howard University Law School. Although she graduated first in her class, Harvard University denied her the opportunity to do post-graduate work there because she was a "woman". However, she later earned a Master of Law degree from the University of California, Berkley, and was the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.

Pauli Murray was a seminal figure in both the civil rights and women’s movements and was an indispensable figure in both movements. She was one of the Founders, in the 1960s, of the National Organization for Women. Later, Murray co-wrote a law review article which was an inspiration for future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Based Ginsburg's argument in her brief in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971). In that case, the Supreme Court extended the provisions of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to women. Her contribution to civil rights jurisprudence was even more consequential.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 LouisianaU.S. 537 (1896) the U.S.Supreme Court upheld racial segregation. In that case, Homer Plessy, a mixed-race person, violated the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. The law required “ equal but separate ” railroad cars for white and non-white passengers. Plessy violated the law to create a test case and pleaded not guilty. His lawyers made the argument that the Louisiana law was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the constitution.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the Louisiana law. The Court argued, implausibly, that racial segregation was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The Court’s reasoning came to be known as the “separate but equal" standard. Basically, the Court ruled that if equal accommodations were provided to each race, the Equal Protection Clause was not violated.

For the next 50 years, Civil Rights cases were brought by arguing that African Americans were not being provided “equal” accommodations. In a class at Howard Law School taught by future Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Spottswood Robinson, Pauli Murray argued that attacking the “equal” part of the Supreme Court doctrine was wrongheaded. She argued that civil rights litigation should attack the “separate” prong of the doctrine and confront racial segregation head-on. She later wrote a paper in which she detailed her views. When Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) was before the Supreme Court, Robinson used the ideas in Murray’s paper to convince the trial team, led by future Justice Thurgood Marshall, to confront the ‘separate but equal” doctrine directly.

The Classic Civil Rights movement is considered to have begun with the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in Brown in which the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine no longer applied in education. Pauli Murray’s work was critical to the ultimate decision of the Court. In fact, Spottswood Robinson made the first argument on behalf of the plaintiffs in the cases consolidated under Brown and used Pauli Murray’s ideas. It is not an exaggeration to say that the ideas of Pauli Murray were before the Court that day and those ideas launched the civil rights movement. Ancestor Pauli Murray lived an eventful and consequential life. You are encouraged to read more about her. (See Recommended Readings below)

( To be continued in Part 2).


You are invited to watch "Going in Circles" an episode of The H3O Art of Life Show, Featuring Ancestor Dr. Barbara Sizemore. Please share our H3O Art of Life Blogs with your acquaintances, friends, and family members. We appreciate your support and welcome your comments.

Asante Sana,

Dr. Gloria Latimore Peace Founder, Omni U virtual University

Creator, The H3O Art of Life Blog

Host and Producer, The H3O Art of Life Show

Recommended Readings by [Ancestor] Pauli Murray

"States Laws on Race and Color"

"Pauli Murray"

"Dark Testament"

"Song in a Weary Throat"

"Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family"

More Recommended Reading

"Walking in Circles" by Ancestor Dr. Barbara A. Sizemore

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