19 February 2015

Black, queer, feminist, erased from history: Meet the most important legal scholar you’ve likely never heard of

Pauli Murray is one of the most pivotal figures in 20th century African-American civil rights history, but beyond academic circles, she is not very well known. In 1944, she graduated as the valedictorian of her Howard University law class, producing a senior thesis titled “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy Be Overruled?” Trained by William Howard Hastie and Leon Ransom at Howard, Pauli Murray had been witness to their early legal strategy of combating separate but equal doctrine by forcing states to either make black institutions equal to their white counterparts or integrate white institutions, if they failed to do so. However, she argued that Plessy v. Ferguson was inherently immoral and discriminatory and should be overturned. When she brought up this argument to her classmates, she noted that her suggestion was received with “hoots of derisive laughter.” Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to name the forms of sexist derision she frequently encountered during her time at Howard. It was the piece she co-authored in 1965 called “Jane Crow and the Law” that Ginsburg cites as so influential in her thinking about legal remedies for sex discrimination. Nearly 10 years later, in 1953, Spottswood Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and others pulled out a copy of her senior paper and used it as a guide to strategize how they would argue the Brown v. Board case. They didn’t bother to mention this until about 10 years later, when she ran into Robinson at Howard Law School.