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Session Five: The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement

Before and during World War II, black North Carolinians began organizing to overcome institutional segregation and their second-class place in a white-dominated caste system. Their efforts met with some recognizable success. Nevertheless, after the war, life for African Americans remained circumscribed by segregation laws. Such restrictive statutes applied to virtually every aspect of their public lives. Jim Crow laws mandated that blacks be separated from whites in all public facilities: schools, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, hotels, recreational sites, and public transportation. Signs reading “Colored” and “White” designated separate water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. Even jails and cemeteries were segregated. Blacks could not buy residential property in white neighborhoods. Some real estate developers placed restrictive covenants on deeds to prohibit African Americans from purchasing property in certain suburban districts. In 1948 the United States Supreme Court ruled that such restrictive covenants were illegal, but de facto segregation remained in white neighborhoods. In political elections in the Tar Heel State, the “grandfather clause,” bogus literacy tests, and poll taxes were used to prevent African Americans from voting.

Pauli Murray
By Sally Bloom*

Writer. Poet. Attorney. Priest. Civil rights activist. Women’s rights advocate. Cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Deputy attorney general of California. Lecturer at the Ghana School of Law. Member of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Vice president of Benedict College. Professor of law and politics at Brandeis University. All these titles apply to one person, Pauli Murray. Murray’s story is one of dedication, hard work, courage, and perseverance in overcoming the hurdles of racism and sexism to accomplish her life’s work.

Anna Pauline Murray was born to William and Agnes Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910. Murray’s mother died four years later, and Murray went to live with her aunt Pauline Fitzgerald and her grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald in Durham, North Carolina. The Fitzgeralds insisted on a sound education for Murray; her grandfather had been a teacher, and her aunt taught elementary school (and would teach for some 60 years in the Durham public schools). After high school Murray attended Hunter College in New York and graduated with a degree in English in 1933.

In 1938 Murray applied to attend graduate school at the University of North Carolina, but was denied entrance because of her race. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sought to challenge the denial on her behalf; however, Murray’s status as a New York resident gave the school another reason to exclude her. Instead, Murray attended Howard University’s law school and graduated at the top of her class—and the only female in her class—in 1944. Howard’s top graduate was generally awarded a fellowship to Harvard, but Murray was denied this opportunity because of her gender.

Undeterred, Murray completed a master of law degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Twenty years later, in 1965, she became the first African American to receive a doctor of juridical science degree from Yale University.

Having faced discrimination because of her race and sex, Murray began working for civil rights in the late 1930s. Her actions foreshadowed those of activists in the 1960s civil rights movement. In 1940 Murray was arrested for protesting against a Virginia law requiring segregation on buses. In 1941 she helped form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). As a student at Howard, she participated in restaurant sit-ins, hoping to desegregate these public places. An accomplished writer, Murray published articles, essays, books, and poetry. One of her poems, Dark Testament, written in 1943, spoke to her experiences and dreams.

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty—
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it. . . .

Then let the dream linger on.
Let it be the test of nations,
Let it be the quest of all our days,
The fevered pounding of our blood,
The measure of our souls—
That none shall rest in any land
And none return to dreamless sleep,
No heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled,
Until the final man may stand in any place
And thrust his shoulders to the sky,
Friend and brother to every other man.

In 1947 Murray was named Mademoiselle magazine’s Woman of the Year. Her 1951 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was, according to then NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, the “Bible” for civil rights lawyers.

Murray was working as a civil rights attorney and a law professor when she was recommended for a position at Cornell University by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Marshall, and A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These references were considered too radical during the days of McCarthyism, and Murray lost the position. At about this same time, Murray decided to write a family memoir, a project she had wanted to begin in the 1930s but that she waited to start until her education and finances allowed her time to delve into it. But what began as a memoir meant for the younger members of her extended family became a response to the “social and political climate” of the 1950s. Murray had this to say about the resulting book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family:

"The civil rights movement was gathering momentum. At the same time, the country was gripped by the hysteria of McCarthyism. . . . As a civil rights activist fighting against racial segregation when challengers of segregation policy were few and defeats were customary, I found it imperative to declare my American heritage."

In the book, Murray describes growing up in her grandparents’ home in Durham, a home that they owned and that was a source of pride to them. Her grandfather, Robert G. Fitzgerald, was the son of a mixed-race couple: his father was a free man of color, and his mother was white. An educator, Robert Fitzgerald had served in the Union army in the Civil War. Murray’s grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, was the daughter of prominent white Chapel Hill lawyer Sidney Smith and Harriet Day, an enslaved woman of mixed heritage. Her grandmother had immense pride in the Smith family’s achievements. Proud Shoes ends with the death of Murray’s grandfather and her feelings of rebellion against both the Jim Crow society that had enveloped Durham and the South and the attitudes toward color within the black community.

After the publication of Proud Shoes in 1956, Murray returned to her work as a lawyer and teacher of law, as well as a civil rights advocate. In 1960 she traveled to Ghana, where she was made a senior lecturer at the Ghana School of Law. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights.

Upon passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Murray wrote an article titled “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” In it, she drew a strong analogy between Jim Crow laws and sex-based discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited sex-based discrimination in employment, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had been created to enforce the act, allowed for sex-based advertisement of job positions in a 1965 ruling. Murray’s denouncement of this decision in her article attracted the attention of Betty Freidan, feminist and author of The Feminine Mystique. At a conference about the EEOC’s decision, Freidan, Murray, and a group of like-minded constituents created a group to promote civil rights for women, and NOW was born.

After serving as vice president of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Murray taught law at Brandeis University for six years before deciding, at the age of 62, to enter General Theological Seminary. There she prepared to become an Episcopal priest, despite the church’s not yet having accepted women as candidates for ordination. Murray completed her master of divinity degree in 1976 and became the first African American female priest ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church a year later. Regarding the two main thrusts of her life’s work, she wrote, “It has occurred to me that my grandfather’s impact on my life may have been responsible for my decision to become a civil rights lawyer, while my grandmother’s influence may have led me finally into the ordained ministry. . . . And while sometimes the one and sometimes the other has been in the forefront of my consciousness, neither has yielded the field, and both must be the ultimate measure of my own existence.”

Murray celebrated her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill in 1977. This service allowed “all the strands” of Murray’s life to “come together,” for it was here that her enslaved grandmother Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald had been baptized in 1854. Murray retired from the Episcopal Church in 1982, although she continued to serve hospitalized and homebound people, as well as to work as a “typewriter advocate.” She died in 1985. Her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, was published posthumously in 1987 and reprinted in 1989 as Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. An earlier work, a poem titled “Prophecy,” gives Murray’s vision of equality for everyone:

I sing of a new American
Separate from all others,
Yet enlarged and diminished by all others.
I am the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves,
Having neither superiors nor inferiors,
Progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.
I have been enslaved, yet my spirit is unbound.
I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain, but live on in the rivers of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge;
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.

*Sally Bloom is the distance learning educator at the North Carolina Museum of History.

Assignment Five

The website A Change Is Gonna Come: Black, Indian, and White Voices for Racial Equality, created by the North Carolina Museum of History, explores some of the major people and events associated with the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina. Please review the website, at, and answer one of the following questions.

Option 1:
Pick one person or event mentioned on the website and write at least a one-page article explaining the importance of that person or event to the Civil Rights movement. What is that person’s or event’s legacy?

Option 2: 
Interview someone who lived through the Civil Rights movement. The interview may be conducted in person or by phone or e-mail. Questions may relate to topics such as segregation, education, voting, and housing. Use the topics on the museum’s civil rights website for inspiration. Write an article at least one page in length summarizing what you learned.

Option 3: (If you are seeking technology credits for this course, choose this option.)*
Evaluate the website. Include a critique of its design, organization, and navigability. Is it easy to use? Why or why not? Did you find any section particularly interesting? Do you think the resources listed on the resources page will be useful in your classroom? Are there other resources that should be included? Is there a person or event not on the website that should be included? Why? Your evaluation should be one page in length.

*If you are interested in this option, we strongly encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. Feel free to refer your LEA to Sally Bloom (919-807-7965 or if questions arise. The museum will specify on your certificate of participation that you qualify for reading or technology credits.

Submit your completed assignment via e-mail to

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