June 18, 2017: Song in a Weary Throat

“I have never been able to accept what I believe to be an injustice. Perhaps it is because of this I am America’s problem child …”

“America’s problem child.”  That’s the way – one of the ways – that the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray saw herself … and not without some reason.  Pauli was one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality, and she encouraged Betty Friedan to create what she called an “N.A.A.C.P. for women.”  (Pauli was one of the original 28 women who founded the National Organization for Women.)  She was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus when instructed to do so by the driver … 20 years before Rosa Parks in Montgomery.   She organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C. decades before the demonstrations at that Woolworth’s counter in Greensboror; and she anticipated the Freedom Summer of 1964 in urging her white classmates from law school to head south to fight for civil rights, wondering how to “attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.”  She was a problem child.

While a law school student – the only woman in her school – Pauli suggested that the way to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson was not to attack the “equal” part, which had been the strategy for roughly the previous 50 years.  She proposed instead that you could attack the “separate” part, and in her final paper she laid out the arguments to do so.  Although her classmates and teachers laughed at her, Thurgood Marshall is known to have made use of that paper when he was preparing for Brown v. Board of Education.  Pauli also wrote a paper that Ruth Bader Ginsberg would later use to develop her argument that the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment should be recognized as extending to women, too. Pauli was a problem child for the American status quo.  Yet for years Pauli was relatively unknown.  In her article about Pauli for The New Yorker, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” Kathryn Schulz sums up her life by saying that it was Pauli’s fate “to be both ahead of the time and behind the scenes.”

Pauli Murray lived an incredible life.  She wrote what Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible” for civil rights lawyers, States’ Laws on Race and Color, as well as a book of her poetry, Dark Testament (from which Arthur read an excerpt a moment ago.) She was the first African American to receive a J.S.D from Yale.  President Kennedy picked her to serve on his Commission on the Status of Women, and, while working as a senior lecturer at the Ghana School of Law, she was part of the team that drafted Ghana’s new Constitution.  (She put her own life in jeopardy while doing this because of her insistence that the Constitution included guarantees of freedom.) In 1947, Mademoiselle magazine declared her “Woman of the Year.”

She knew Langston Hughes; had a decades long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; worked with Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and hung out at the Harlem nightclub Jock’s Place with … my mother.  (That’s why I’ve been feeling comfortable calling her Pauli, she was always “Pauli” in our family.) Shortly after Pauli died my mom wrote in her journal:

I thought her one of the most extraordinary people I’d met in my life then; I feel the same about her now.

The freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams was the most wonderful thing about her.

She began as a poet who became a lawyer and then an Episcopal priest.  But, always she was a poet, who observed people with compassion and humor, who reacted to the world with passion.

Earthbound and pedantic in contrast, I thank God I had the imagination to establish and maintain a relationship with her, because it was a nourishing relationship.  One of the most important in my life.

But this isn’t a sermon about the wonderfully extraordinary life of Saint Pauli (yes, the Episcopal Church has named her a saint).  None of these successes did not come easy.

When Pauli – then Anna Pauline – was three years old her mother died in front of her from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Her father then sent her to live with her maternal Aunt, for whom she’d been named, Pauline Fitzgerald.  There were no other children in the house, only her Aunt Pauline, and her parents, Cornelia and Robert.  Cornelia, Pauli’s grandmother, had been born in slavery.  Cornelia’s mother – Pauli’s great-grandmother – was a part-Cherokee slave named Harriet, and Pauli’s great-grandfather was the son of Harriet’s owner, and Harriet’s frequent rapist.

When Pauli was about six, her father was committed to the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane, suffering from the effects of grief, anxiety, poverty, and illness.  Some years later, a racist guard dragged her father into the basement of the hospital, where he beat him to death with a baseball bat. Pauli was only 12.  She once said that “the most important fact about [her] childhood is that [she] was an orphan.”

Pauli described herself as a, “a thin, wiry, ravenous child.”  She taught herself to read by the age of five.  By the time she graduated high school — at fifteen — she was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the president of the literary society, class secretary, a member of the debate club, the top student … and a forward on the basketball team.

She could have easily gotten into the North Carolina College for Negroes, but she had already been resisting racist segregation from her earliest years. She’d walked wherever she could, because she refused to ride in the segregated streetcars, and she wouldn’t go to the movies because she wouldn’t be told that she had to sit in the Colored section in the balcony. She wasn’t any more interested in being told that she had to go to a segregated college. Tired of the South’s blatant segregation, she decided that she wanted to head north, and declared that she was going to go to Columbia University in New York.

When she and Aunt Pauline went to visit the school, she discovered that race wasn’t the only kind of segregation.  Columbia didn’t accept women; Barnard did, but she couldn’t afford the cost of tuition.  Gender and class would also be battlegrounds for this “problem child.”  She found out that she could go to Hunter College for free if she was a New York resident, which wouldn’t be hard – she could live with a cousin in Queens.  But Hunter told her that her high school education had been incomplete, so she re-enrolled in high school, Richmond Hill High School … where she was the only African-American among four thousand students.

Some time later, she decided to return to North Carolina, applying to the University of North Carolina’s graduate program in sociology.  But, the University of North Carolina’s graduate program in sociology didn’t accept African Americans.  Pauli knew this, of course.  She also knew that two of her slave-owning relatives had attended the school, another had served on its board of trustees, and yet another had created a permanent scholarship for its students – all of this made her a legacy applicant.  U.N.C didn’t see it that way, and her application was denied.

She went to Howard Law School with, as she said, “the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow,” and where, as I’ve said, she was the only woman – student or faculty.  On her first day, one of her professors said that he couldn’t imagine why a woman would want to go to law school.  Not only did she find this humiliating – as it was intended – but it also fired her determination to become the top of her class.  Which she did.

The usual “reward” for graduating from Howard in this position was a prestigious fellowship to further study at Harvard.  So, she applied, but was told, “You are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School,” to which she responded, in perfect “problem child” fashion:

Gentlemen, 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 on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?

By this time Pauli had already established a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt – a story for another time – so her request for admission was supported by no one less than F.D.R. himself (who, besides being President of the United States was a Harvard alum), yet even that was apparently not enough to get the good “gentlemen” of Harvard to change their minds.  To her commitment to ending Jim Crow she now added a determination to bring to an end what she’d come to call, “Jane Crow.”

She applied for a teaching position at Cornell, and was turned down because the people she used as references were considered “too radical.”  (For the record, they were Phillip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and Eleanor Roosevelt.)  It might seem as though Pauli was everywhere, involved in everything, but her story also includes a whole lot of places she was told she could not go.

Yet time and time again, Pauli was “the first” – the first African American, the first woman, the first African American woman – and she had to face all that went with that.  And nearly forty years before Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” Pauli insisted that her various identities could not be separated – she was of mixed race; she was a woman; she had known real poverty (and despite her many degrees and accomplishments, remained close to it throughout her life).  In recent years scholars have noted that this extremely private person was a lesbian, and sometimes called herself a “boy-girl,” who wondered if her attraction to women was because she was really a man in a woman’s body.  (She never used the word “transgender,” or, for that matter, “lesbian,” but she knew these identities and knew that the were as inseparable as any of her others.)  After helping to found the Congress of Racial Equality, she chided the civil rights movement for excluding women; after helping to found the National Organization for Women, she criticized it for being, “the N.A.A.C.P. for white women.”

Can you see why she might see hope as a “song in a weary throat?”  Why she’d see hope not as Dickinson’s bright and fluttery “thing with feathers,” but as, “a crushed stalk / Between clenched fingers / … a bird’s wing / Broken by a stone”?  Pauli had struggled, had had to struggle, and from the experiences of her grandmother and great-grandmother, her mother, her father, and her own near-constant battle to be who she was and who she was capable of being, Pauli knew firsthand how fragile hope can be.

In our own ways, many of us do, too.  In the last several months I have talked with two congregants who’ve told me that they really can’t see any reason for going on, and see no hope of finding any.  I’m sure there are others.  And when a loved one dies or is given a terminal diagnosis, when we come up against our own mortality, when we feel stuck in a job that’s killing us or a deadly relationship, when we have to choose between paying a bill or buying some food, when we feel that despite our best efforts the planet will become uninhabitable and that white supremacy will never be dismantled, when our depression makes everything seem bleak, when any of a thousand things like these are going on in our lives … we, too, might see hope as a bird with a broken wing.  So … what are we to do?

In the life of Pauli Murray I see a call to tenacity.  Hope might have been for her “a song in a weary throat,” a “tuneless ditty,” but she never stopped singing it, nonetheless.  That “freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams.” As I noted earlier, after a long and distinguished career, at the age of 62 she left the security of her position in academia (she was by then a professor at Brandeis University), and entered seminary to become an Episcopal priest.  This was 1973, and the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain women as priests.  A problem child once again.  While Pauli was not among the first group of women ordained by the Church, she was the first African American woman in Episcopal Church history to become a priest.  And even if, as some biographers have suggested, she was driven toward the priesthood in part because she’d been told she couldn’t go there, her call to ordained ministry was also a sign of deep and abiding commitment to hope.

I’m going to conclude with letting Pauli speak for herself about her ability to find hope even in the realities that crushed that stalk and broke that wing.  I am not suggesting that we all need to become Episcopal priests, as she did. I’m not even suggesting that we all need to believe in God, as clearly important as that was for her. I am saying that in Pauli Murray’s life we can see a model of how to look through the times of hopelessness to see the hope on the other side.  This is from the end of her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage [which has since been re-titled], where she describes how, at the end, “all the strands of [her] life had come together.”

“I traveled to North Carolina to celebrate my first Holy Communion – also the first Eucharist to be celebrated by a woman in that state – at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill. …

On Sunday, February 13, in the little chapel where my Grandmother Cornelia had been baptized more than a century earlier as one of ‘Five Servant Children Belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith,’ I read the gospel from an ornate lectern engraved with the name of that slave-owning woman who had left part of her wealth to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.  A thoroughly integrated congregation crowded the chapel, and many more stood outside until they could enter to kneel at the altar rail and receive Communion.  There was a great irony in the fact that the first woman priest to preside at the altar of the church to which Marry Ruffin Smith had given her deepest devotion should be the granddaughter of the little girl she had sent to the balcony reserved for slaves.  But more than irony marked that moment.  Whatever future ministry I might has a priest, it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing

All the strands of my life had come together.  Descendent of slave and slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend.  Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.

This is the entire text of my mother’s journal entry on hearing of the death of her friend.

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray died Monday, July 1.

A friend for about 40 years.

I met her through Lou Jefferson at Jock’s Place in Harlem.

I thought her one of the most extraordinary people I’d met in my life then; I feel the same about her now.

The freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams was the most wonderful thing about her.

She began as a poet who became a lawyer and then an Episcopal priest.  But, always she was a poet who observed people with compassion and humor, who reacted to the world with passion.

Earthbound and pedantic in contrast I thank God I had the imagination to establish and maintain a relationship with her because it was nourishing relationship.  One of the most important in my life.

Se never saw Paul again after the Christening ceremony at the Broadway Tabernacle but her interest in him, and his brothers, was real and caring.

The shock of the Wikstroms that day was memorable.  The mischievous part of me treasures the moment, and I know that Pauli was amused, too.

Pauli, who classified people in ice cream flavors – strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. She refused to adopt the language of the feminists even though she was one of the NOW organizers.  And she would not adopt the berm “black,” preferring “Negro” as having authenticity ethnically and, therefore, greater dignity.  Oh how the leaders in the peer groups closest to her fought with her on these issues.

When she was in Ghana as a law professor helping to write that country’s new constitution she put her life in danger by insisting upon inclusion of guarantees of freedom.  Her letters during that period were cautiously worded because she knew they wee being read by the authorities.  When she was scheduled for a Paris vacation friends advised she make the trip not planning to return cause there was a plot to kill her.

We named Paul after a most courageous person.  Someone who at 66 because one of the first women to be ordained by the Episcopal church.  [She was one of the first women, and was the first African American woman to be ordained.]

I am grateful for her friendship.

This is the text of a section of Pauli’s epic poem, “Dark Testament.”

Dark Testament, Verse 8

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.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to sing it

While doing research for the sermon I discovered that the raper RaShad cut an album earlier this year titled, A Conversation with Pauli Murray.  To be honest, it’s a little uneven, in my humble opinion, yet here are two cuts from it — the second one includes something of her story, the first actually includes her voice!

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