Pauli Murray: One Woman’s Contribution to the Black Power Movement

The Black Power movement is historically remembered as a male-dominated initiative in which black citizens of the United States attempted to claim their right to determine their own destinies. However, upon closer reexamination of historical events, it is clear that while the dominant memory evokes images of leaders like Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, the majority of key legislative changes during the movement were largely due to the work of grassroots protests, of which women tended to preside over. The often forgotten, or undervalued role of women in the black power movement is not just an example of “women were there too” or of their roles as behind the scenes participants, but instead it exposes the necessity of reflecting on this important movement in American history in an attempt to redefine and expand the dominant memory of leadership, protest, and initiative taken during this time [1].

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Murray, born in Baltimore in 1910 moved to Durham upon the death of her parents

One attempt to challenge the male-dominated memory of the black power
movement can be seen in the important civil rights figure Pauli Murray. An influential writer from Durham, North Carolina, some of her greatest contributions can be seen in her aptitude for writing articles, poems, and the novel Angel of the Desert. In particular, her poem “Dark Testament: Verse 8” evokes profound and thoughtful emotions about the fate of hope for “a brown girl” during this time period [2].

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(Pauli Murray’s “Dark Testament: Verse 8”)

Murray often cited her writing as her proudest accomplishment. It leaves behind a lasting stamp of her memory, transporting those who read it back to a much different America, giving us a greater appreciation for the civil rights freedoms we enjoy today. The haunting depictions of hope as a “crushed stalk” or “bird’s wing broken by a stone” in “Dark Testament: Verse 8” are relevant not just to the civil rights struggle of sixty years ago, but to present-day fights by marginalized groups of people, often minorities, who continue to feel their hope strangled and oppressed by the current structure of society. (For more on women activists in the Black Power movement who contributed through works of literature see https://blackpower.web.unc.edu/2017/04/maya-angelou-a-caged-bird/)

In addition to her living memory and contribution through writing, Murray played a key role as a civil rights activist during her lifetime, petitioning UNC for admission, serving time in jail to help end segregation of public transportation, and ultimately becoming a civil rights lawyer. Her work in civil rights legislation literature was monumental during the time period, with her book States’ Laws on Race and Color deemed the Bible for civil rights lawyers. In 1960 Murray traveled to Ghana to explore her African cultural roots, and upon her return was appointed to JFK’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights where she became critical of male-dominated leadership of civil rights organizations. She is quoted as having felt “increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role in which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions”. Throughout her lifetime, and ultimately until her death in 1985, Murray fought to close the gender gap in civil rights leadership, as well as to gain recognition for the vital and often unrecognized work of many women throughout the movement [2].

“I felt increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role in which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots level of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.”

One of the most recent ways that Murray has been remembered is through the “Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life Project”, a public art project in Durham enlisting the participation of over 1500 people from 2007-2009 who aided in creating 14 new permanent public murals. The purpose of this movement speaks to the original purpose of the nonviolent strategy of the black power movement advocated for by Murray, to foster new connections and dialogue by expanding awareness of local history [3]. These murals, as seen below, serve as provocative additions to the exteriors of businesses, schools, and public spaces in downtown and southwest central Durham.

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(mural in Durham, NC. quote reads, “True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”)
Roots-Soul-4-241x300
(mural in Durham, NC. quote reads, “It had taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors.”)

These two murals show Murray in a colorful, vibrant fashion, along with two of her famous quotes, forcing passerby to challenge the dominant memory of male-lead black power, instead gazing at the bright smile of Murray speaking wisdom about accepting the past and the principles of true community. These murals clearly display the unique memory of one woman during the black power movement, while simultaneously acting as greater symbols of the lessons to be gained from this time period, showing both the particularistic and universal complexity of memory.

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volunteers for the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice work to preserve Murray’s childhood home

The commemoration of the life and work of Pauli Murray is further seen in the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, set to open to the public in 2020. This center occupies what was once Murray’s family home, showing the usability of her memory as a historical site and educational center for the history of the black power movement [4]. The creation of this monument has enlisted the help of volunteers from various organizations and universities, uniting the Durham community on behalf of the remembrance of Murray and the movement as a whole. The material destination of her childhood home as a center for social justice education and activism mobilization shows how the work of her past continues to be interpreted in modern-day society.

Murray’s writings, depictions in murals, and childhood home-turned social justice center all emphasize the experience of black power as a community. They highlight the necessity of not overlooking one for their gender, or their race, inspiring hope for a better future in those who read, see, or visit these sites of memory tied to Murray. Each of these sites shows a community united towards change, while simultaneously encouraging the reflection on the struggles of the past, unveiling the progress achieved and still to be achieved for African Americans in the United States.

Works Cited

[1]: Greene, Christina. “Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Oxford University Press, 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

[2]: Duke Human Rights Center. “Pauli Murray Project.” Poetry by Pauli Murray | Pauli Murray Project. Duke Human Rights Center, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

[3]: Duke Human Rights Center. “Pauli Murray Project.” Pauli Murray Murals – Part of the Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life Project | Pauli Murray Project. Duke Human Rights Center, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

[4]: Duke Human Rights Center. “Pauli Murray Project.” Pauli Murray Center | Pauli Murray Project. Duke Human Rights Center, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

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