A Thorn in Her Heart
With a Black woman now slated to sit on the Supreme Court, children today may have trouble grasping the extent of the struggle that went before. In “Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist & Civil Rights Activist,” co-authors Rosita Stevens-Holsey and Terry Catasús Jennings provide middle schoolers with an introduction, written in verse, to a woman who helped pave the way.
Anna Pauline Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910 and brought up by an aunt in North Carolina after the early death of her mother. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Pauli, as she was known, became a firebrand for justice. “Jim Crow meant / humiliation.,” the authors write. “Suffering / the degradation / let Pauli understand the / injustice / and unfairness / of her lot. / That understanding would be / a thorn / she would always want to / pull from deep inside / her heart.”
Despite her twin obstacles of race and gender, Murray persevered, with her passion and clear vision drawing helpful people to her, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a lifelong friend and advocate. Murray eventually earned a law degree—and was the first Black person to earn a doctorate in juridical science from Yale. Her groundbreaking work at Howard University in 1944 laid the foundation for the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision a decade later, although she never got credit for it.
As a feminist and “a woman / who felt herself a man / trapped / in a woman’s body,” she was instrumental in ensuring that women were included in the 1969 Civil Rights Act, and, with Betty Friedan, helped found NOW. She was a writer and poet, but perhaps her most lasting legacy is her legal work. “She ensconced the laws / that would make it possible / for each human’s rights to flourish,” the authors write. “She strove / to make a difference / for those who couldn’t advocate / for themselves.” This unsung but transformative voice against discrimination of all kinds died in 1985 just shy of her 75th birthday.
Rosita Stevens-Holsey is Murray’s niece and a teacher who promotes her aunt’s legacy through speaking and personal appearances (www.paulimurraycenter.com). Terry Catasús Jennings is a local award-winning author of children’s fiction, non-fiction, and fact-based fiction (www.terrycjennings.com).