Hero of the First Amendment: Pauli Murray

First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

 

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Pauli Murray has been one of my personal heroes for years.  It’s a good thing she was a real person, because if she were a fictional character, any decent editor would complain that she was unrealistic and demand that the author tone her down to something more plausible. Pauli Murray (born Anna Pauline Murray) was a poet, a lawyer, a civil rights activist, an educator, and the first female African-American to be ordained as an Episcopalian priest.  She helped co-found both CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1942 and NOW (National Organization for Women) in 1966.  She was turned down when she applied for a position at Cornell University because her references (Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and Philip Randolph) were too radical. In her younger days, she’d been turned down from attending the University of North Carolina (which her ancestors had helped found) because she was Black and from attending Harvard because she was female. Her reply to Harvard was classic.

“I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”

Pauli Murray was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of the bus fifteen years before Rosa Parks, and for following Gandhi’s example of peaceful civil disobedience while Martin Luther King was still in short pants. She led sit-ins in Washington, DC during WWII.

Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1944, Pauli Murray and fellow students from Howard University began a demonstration at Thompson’s, at Eleventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, a cafeteria only a few blocks from the White House.  Some picketed outside.  Some, including Pauli, went inside and asked to order. The cafeteria refused to serve them, so they took empty trays to vacant tables and sat down. Pauli, as the only female law student at Howard University at the time, was spokeswoman for the group.  Politely but firmly, she reminded the staff at Thompson’s that Washington, DC, law did not require segregation.  It was custom, not legally required.

Police watched the picketers and the crowd gathering to protest the protesters to make sure no laws were broken, but they did not interfere. The posters said:

  • “Are you for HITLER’S Way (Race Supremacy) or the AMERICAN Way (Equality)?  Make Up Your Mind!”
  •  “We Die Together.  Why Can’t We Eat Together?”
  • “Our Boys, our Bonds, our Brothers are Fighting for YOU!  Why Can’t We Eat Here?”

The students from Howard entered the restaurant in small groups, two or three at a time.  They continued to occupy tables, preventing paying customers from eating.  Six African-American soldiers, who were not involved with the demonstration and had not known Thompson’s didn’t serve African-Americans, came in to get a meal.  White soldiers and sailors were already inside Thompson’s eating.  When the manager refused to serve them, they, too, sat down at empty tables and read the newspapers, rather than going elsewhere to look for somewhere that would serve Blacks.  By five o’clock that evening, there were fifty-six demonstrators (including the soldiers) taking up tables.  Thompson’s was losing money.  The manager asked them to leave, but Pauli pointed out they were not breaking any laws.  The district supervisor of the Thompson’s chain came and asked them to leave.  Pauli refused, politely.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. will do years later, she was practicing civil disobedience (with an emphasis on the civility).  Finally, after telephone consultations with Thompson’s main office in Chicago, the restaurant agreed to serve them, after four and a half hours of peaceful sit-in.  The cafeteria’s waitresses refused to serve African-American customers, so the manager and the district supervisor had to act as waiters.

Pauli, being a law student at the time, knew the First Amendment and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

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“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.” Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray was born November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland.  She died July 1, 1985 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In between 1910 and 1985, she fought against racism and sexism.  She was the first African-American Deputy Attorney General for the state of California.  In 1947, Mademoiselle Magazine named her Woman of the Year. She wrote poems, essays, and books. She was the first African-American to earn a doctorate of law at Yale University.  She taught law at several colleges, both in the United States and Ghana.

She held these truths to be self-evident:  that all men and women are created equal.

 

 

 

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