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The lasting impact of former professor Pauli Murray

Justice Stephen Breyer announced in late January his intention to retire from the Supreme Court. With his intent to retire, this offers President Joe Biden the opportunity to appoint someone in his place. The vacancy allows Biden to fulfill one of his campaign promises—to appoint the first African American woman to the Supreme Court. 

Though, this isn’t the first time the request is being made to appoint a female African American justice. Fifty years ago, in 1971, Pauli Murray wrote to then-president Richard Nixon asking him to consider her for one of the vacant positions in the Supreme Court, according to an article from The Harvard Crimson archives

“It should be of passing interest that I [Murray] represent the largest group of minority status in the United States—namely, female. The Court would be more representative of the composition and interests of the population of the United States if a qualified woman were appointed. My application is to forestall the popular misconception that no qualified women applied or are available,” reads Murray’s letter to Nixon.  

Biden announced his intention to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court, which received some backlash from other politicians arguing the decision should not be made on the basis of race and gender. However, former President Ronald Reagan made a similar campaign promise to nominate the first woman to the supreme court, which he later fulfilled with his appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor. 

Though Murray did not receive the nomination back in 1971, she did leave a lasting legacy. Murray has been cited as an “unsung hero” of the Civil Rights Movement. Her argument regarding that the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection clause could be used as a “frontal assault” on Plessy versus Ferguson became the inspiration behind the framework of the Brown versus Board of Education case which ended segregation in public schools. Murray had made the argument that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional, 10 years prior to the Supreme Court case arguing the same point.  

Murray was a civil rights activist who organized restaurant sit-ins 20 years before the sit-ins in Greensboro. She was also arrested in Petersburg, VA for refusing to move to the back of the bus. This happened 15 years before a similar situation happened with Rosa Parks—who is remembered for being arrested for the same reason. 

While she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Murray also fought for women’s rights. She was one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), an organization dedicated towards the movement for true equality for women. Murray’s name was also featured on the cover page of Reed versus Reed, the first gender equity brief put forward by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. While Murray did not work directly on the case, Ginsburg featured her name on the brief due to her, “delineation of the connection between race and gender, and of the way to use the equal protection clause to litigate for gender equality.” 

“I [Murray] knew that in many instances it was difficult to determine whether I was being discriminated against because of race or sex,” Murray wrote in her memoir. 

Murray broke several boundaries, she was the first African-American to receive a degree of Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale University. She was also the first African-American woman to become an ordained Episcopal priest, after having earned a Master in Divinity degree. Twenty-seven years after her death, Murray received the distinction of saint by the Episcopal Church.  

In spite of her work providing the framework for civil rights legislation, her work widely goes unnoticed. “As a black, queer, feminist woman, Pauli Murray has been almost completely erased from the narrative,” reads her biography on NOW’s webpage—the organization she spearheaded. 

Murray not only left her mark on the nation, but she also left her mark on the university. Murray joined the faculty in 1968 and served until 1973. During this time she wrote to Nixon regarding her application to be a Supreme Court Justice. In her letter to Nixon, Murray cites that one of her qualifications for the position includes that she is the first Stulberg Professor of Law and Politics at Brandeis University.

Murray was responsible for the transition from the American Civilization program into the American Studies Program, which still exists today. Murray discussed and taught ideas of gender identity, sexuality and race and how they intersect. The combination of those three ideas is today referred to as intersectionality and is widely studied across the university, though in Murray’s time the term had yet to be coined. 

“I’m always ahead of my time,” Murray told The Washington Post in 1977. It is widely recognized today how Murray was ahead of her time. In a documentary called “I am Pauli Murray” the film draws on how Murray was ahead of the curve with her ideas. Faith Smith, chair of the Department of African American Studies said that the documentary “demonstrates that we are always trying to catch up to Murray,” according to an article

Murray’s lasting impact can be seen within the Brandeis community and in the greater United States. Her work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and NOW changed the course of history for civil rights and women’s rights.

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