Pauli Murray spent her entire life fighting for human rights.
She shaped the early Civil Rights Movement and was the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Murray’s influence as an activist, writer, professor, lawyer and reverend was pervasive.
Yet her accomplishments were not always fully recognized, said North Carolina poet and activist Jaki Shelton Green.
“I’ve always been fascinated by this woman, who was always kind of under the radar,” she said. “She’s one of those many, many women fighting for justice that made an impact but were kind of silent warriors.”
Murray is a hometown hero, Orange County Civil Rights Specialist James E. Davis Jr. said. Murray’s grandmother was a slave in Orange County, and her great-grandfather was a slave owner. In 1938, she fought for admission into UNC-Chapel Hill—13 years before the university would admit its first black students.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Orange County Human Relations Commission’s Pauli Murray Award. The honor recognizes an Orange County youth, adult and business who uphold Murray’s principles of equality, human rights and justice.
Music Maker Relief Foundation, Elizabeth Davis, Walter Faribault Jr. and Emma Catanzaro received awards at the Sunday, Feb. 22, awards ceremony.
“[Murray] has been a collaborative source, even in her death, for community building,” Shelton Green said.
Shelton Green first heard about Murray as a teenager in Durham. Murray, who died in 1985, wrote her autobiography “Proud Shoes” about her upbringing in the Bull City.
“I identify myself as a cultural activist, as a social activist, as a feminist,” Shelton Green said. “[Murray’s] life shows a lot of insight into what it means to fight for human rights.”
Shelton Green inducted Murray into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 1998 and was herself inducted last year.
“She really embodied the themes any writer should have: to speak power to your truth and not allow your work to be censored,” Shelton Green said.
Murray’s activism was far reaching. In 1940, she was arrested for protesting segregated busses in Virginia.
She fought for admission into both UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was rejected because of her race, and to Harvard, where she was rejected because of her gender.
Murray became a civil rights lawyer, professor and university vice president. She was appointed to John F. Kennedy’s President’s Commission on the Status of Women Committee in 1961. In 1966, she became a founding member of the National Organization for Women.
Finally, in 1977, Murray became the first black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. She gave her first Eucharist at The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, the same chapel where her grandmother had been baptized as a slave in 1854.
Women like Murray laid a strong groundwork for activism today, Shelton Green said.
“We have some pretty strong shoulders to stand on if we decide to become activists,” she said.
Shelton Green said she is often asked why there are not as many visible civil rights leaders today. But activism, she said, is alive and strong, as is evident in the Moral Monday and Ferguson protests.
The Pauli Murray Award highlights just some of these modern activists— people who have “done great things toward the promotion of human rights and dignity,” Davis said.
“They’re here; they’re working,” Shelton Green said. “Just because you don’t see them on 60 Minutes or the 6 o’clock news doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
Activism today, just like in Murray’s time, is accomplished through the hard work of these silent warriors.