What Can We Learn from Pauli Murray?

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in Pauli Murray, the black civil rights and women’s rights activist. Patricia Bell-Scott’s portrait of Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was published in 2016. Rosalind Rosenberg’s exquisitely detailed biography came out in 2017. A new edition of her memoir was republished in 2018. Last year yet another scholarly biography came out. A major documentary of Murray’s life premiered this year.

Murray appeals to us now for many of the same reasons she faced marginalization during her life. A black woman who recognized early on how race and sex were interlocking forms of oppression–Jane Crow, she called it–Murray was an unsung influence in both the civil rights and women’s movements. Not only that, her long struggle with her own gender identity and sexuality strikes a chord with us now.

“I will resist every attempt to categorize me,” she wrote in 1945. Readers must have thought she was just talking about race. Her private struggle to come to terms with her sense of herself as a man in a female body make her words more poignant than readers could have known at the time. Had she been born a century later, perhaps Murray would have identified as a transgender man. (What pronouns we ought to use when referring to Murray is a matter of some controversy). In her own time, such categories didn’t exist. Even if they had, perhaps Murray would still have said, “I will resist every attempt to categorize me.”

If the reactions of the students in my Black Politics and Black Power course are any indication, Murray’s ethos speaks powerfully to young people today. We read her 1945 piece, “An American Credo” in class.

Many of the students were enthralled. What can activists today learn from Murray’s “American Credo”? It’s one snapshot in time and doesn’t do justice to the totality of Murray’s thought and the way she changed over time, but here are three takeaways.

Claim America for yourself

It is fashionable today to point out America’s hypocrisy and injustice. Drawing on the black nationalist tradition and other radical movements, some activists describe the United States as a place that never has been and probably never will be a home for black people. These activists draw on a venerable tradition stretching back to Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey, and many others. Activists in this tradition have often been prophets in the wilderness speaking the hard truths the powerful do not want to hear.

But for those who want to change this country rather than make a new one, there are costs to ceding home field advantage to the racists. (In some cases, this cession has been shamefully explicit: witness Marcus Garvey’s attempted rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan). Most Americans consider themselves patriotic and have deeply felt attachments to the land of their birth. This patriotism might be even more deeply felt among many black Americans, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the country they have done so much to build. Not for nothing have black writers often described themselves as scorned lovers.

Those bonds of attachment ought to be leveraged for racial justice, not surrendered to the meanness of narrow nationalism. It is telling that a speech like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852) is a touchstone in our moment while other Douglass speeches like “Our Composite Nationality” (1869) are little remembered. Historical context compels us to admit that the political economy of 1869–with slavery abolished and citizenship enshrined in the constitution–has more in common with our time than the slave society Douglass scorned in 1852. Yet Douglass’s audacious patriotism of 1869 is not in vogue today.

In “Our Composite Nationality” Douglass refused to cede America’s founding and its future to the forces of racism and reaction. Instead, he demanded and prophesied that America’s destiny was to be a home for all the peoples of the world where people of all races and creeds could live together in complete equality. Which Douglass was more radical? The outsider of 1844 exposing the nation’s empty promises and shallow pretensions? Or the insider of 1869 with the audacity to claim ownership of the nation’s meaning and bend its trajectory to his will?

Murray operated more in the mold of Douglass circa 1869 than 1852. “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” Murray wrote. “And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, ‘I love this cultured hell which tests my strength.'”

Murray was not naive. She was not blind to the country’s failures. Instead, what we see here is a dogged insistence that America belongs to me. Its symbols and legends, its emotional resonance and power to inspire–they all are mine. I insist on defining America’s trajectory. “And so,” Murray declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition through the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.”

Hold the moral high ground

The pull to get even, to give to your enemy what they deserve, is a basic human impulse. We all know it. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we’ve probably acted on this impulse more times than we’d care to remember. And in the history of societies and nations, this drive for revenge, the thirst to meet violence with violence, is part of the sad story of many cycles of war and hatred.

People who transcended this impulse are remembered as some of the great saints and sages of human history. And, in the 20th century, we remember political figures who combined this spiritual insight with a practical program of action that delivered tangible results for their people–Gandhi, King, Mandela. We can add Pauli Murray to their number.

Murray wrote that her struggle against segregation required “an individual revolution” in her thinking. “I cannot be rent asunder by harboring personal prejudices or racial resentments. I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice or hatred is an emotional waste.” Murray understood that systems of oppression are always working to bring us down to their level. If I give free reign to my hatred and desire for revenge, if I look around me for scapegoats on which to vent my rage, I become spiritually and psychologically lost. Murray tried to remember that her oppressors were people, like her. “I seek to destroy an institution,” she wrote, “a disease–not a people.”

Oppression seeks to break human spirits. Resistance to it must always be spiritual (though, of course, not only spiritual). Murray took this spiritual imperative so far that it included “inviting the violence [of segregation] upon my own body. For what is life itself,” she asked, “without the freedom to walk proudly before God and man and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression?”

Make your methods as noble as your goals

A common conceit of ideologues is that peace and justice will reign once they have gained power, but in the meantime some harsher methods are required. This isn’t how human beings or human societies work. We can’t turn off the hatreds we’ve unleashed like turning off water from the faucet. Those who desire a future of peace and justice must act in alignment with that vision now. The methods we use now are the methods we will continue to use if we gain power.

I’m reminded of one of Murray’s contemporaries, the civil rights activist Ella Baker. She was one of the best recruiters the NAACP ever had, but she resigned her post rather than submit to the top-down leadership style of the organization. She insisted that an organization struggling for a democratic society must itself be democratic. In a similar way, Murray did not agree with radicals who sought to overthrow segregation by any means necessary. For Murray, means and ends were organically connected.

“I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force,” Murray wrote. Not only would that be wasteful of human life, it wouldn’t work. Instead, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. 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.”

In our era it sometimes seems that we’re drawing ever smaller circles. Murray shows us a better way.

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