Notes from WATERtea:

“My Name is Pauli Murray”

with Kelly Brown Douglas

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Watch the video recording.

Selected reading:

SONG IN A WEARY THROAT: AN AMERICAN PILGRIMAGE.

Pauli Murray, New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

JANE CROW: THE LIFE OF PAULI MURRAY.

Rosalind Rosenberg, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Film: “My Name is Pauli Murray,” https://www.amazon.com/My-Name-Pauli-Murray/dp/B09DMPMWCP

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WATER thanks the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, for leading this discussion. Kelly’s latest book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter (Orbis, 2021) is a clear-eyed vision of what hope can mean in hard times. We intend to have a discussion on that at a later date.

We are using inclusive pronouns and PM to refer to Pauli Murray as per some of the latest research.

A summary of Kelly Brown Douglas’ remarks on Pauli Murray follows:

  1. Pauli Murray was ordained on January 8, 1977, the first Black woman to become an Episcopal priest. The historical significance of their priesthood is complex. PM wanted to create a more just world. In many important ways, they were a priest long before PM was ordained. PM’s call from God kept PM from accepting gender binaries. Their call to priesthood is an illuminating frame for understanding PM’s journey, especially for grasping their spiritual significance for today.
  2. PM was told by a mentor that to be a priest is to be called by God not by the church. PM lived into priesthood before ordiantion day. PM was told by a church official that PM was “a child of destiny.” Indeed! They recognized a power beyond themselves to which they were accountable. Fighting legal battles with workers and women, doing civil rights work and the like were moral not simply political matters. PM was “doing ministry all along” struggling for equality and justice.
  3. With regard to unhelpful binaries including gender and race, PM pushed right past them. The struggles against segregation were at once personal, political, and spiritual. The intersectionality which emerged as “Jane Crow” was directly from their own experience. PM was a person who queered the boundaries of laws to bring about equal treatment. They understood themselves as catching up to what God had created us to be.
  4. PM had an open moral imagination for what was and is possible. After decades of historically crucial work in the law, they understood their priestly ministry as even more powerful than politics. So, it was not a surprise that they said being a priest was when “all of the strands of my life came together” toward the goal of human wholeness.
  5. For contemporary audiences, the significance of PM was a priesthood that began long before being ordained and expanded the moral imagination. “Let moral imaginations be expanded by the priest that was PM” whose spiritual legacy was to partner with God for a more just future.

Kelly concluded:

From Dark Testament, Verse 8 by Pauli Murray  (1943)

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 hear it.

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Q+A Discussion

  1. Just as Pauli Murray had written to President Richard Nixon to offer themself as his employee as a Justice on the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s daughter recommended her mother to the President for a Supreme Court appointment.
  2. Just as PM was a priest long before her ordination, many Roman Catholic women who are similarly banned from ordination experience their priesthood in their ministry without ecclesial approval or support.Kelly replied that PM was sustained by their sense of spirituality and that the world was supposed to be different, grounded in a deep spirituality and doing justice work in partnership with God. When every aspect of one’s humanity is negated, a heavy toll is taken.Caution: Do not create a Black superwoman model. Recognize the humanity and fragility of everyone’s humanity, especially the toll taken on black women. PM struggled with myriad health issues. They struggled with white feminists. Do not romanticize their life or that of any Black woman.
  1. One colleague, an ordained Baptist women, said that she delayed announcing her call for 20 years because of discrimination against women in her denomination.
  2. PM worked collegially with some church-related women. Joyce Hill, a retired United Methodist staff person, drew Mary E. Hunt’s attention to the fact that the United Methodist Church women were the funders and supporters of some of Murray’s most important work. In 1948, they asked her to write up a short explanation of segregation laws during Jim and Jane Crow so the Methodist Church, which opposed segregation, could help parishes eradicate it on local levels. As Jeanette Stokes observed, what was supposed to be “a pamphlet turned up the size of a telephone book.” It was the 746 page book, States’ Laws on Race and Color (https://ugapress.org/book/9780820350639/states-laws-on-race-and-color/ ) in which PM “exposed the extent and absurdity of segregation” (Emma Rothberg, “Pauli Murray,” National Women’s History Museum, 2021). Thurgood Marshall called it “the bible” of Brown vs. Board of Education (per Rothberg). United Methodist women kept funding the research that became the book. After Brown v. Board, it went out of print because the laws changed so quickly. Note that it was the Women’s Division, not the Methodist Church as such, that literally kept PM going in those years working on world changing research.
  3. A colleague asked about the concept of “reciprocity,” the idea of exchange, the give/take of receiving/giving.Kelly made clear that PM was always concerned to ask “What am I supposed to do to make a situation better?” They were less concerned about receiving than giving. That said, PM is another example of a highly qualified Black female who could not get a job. Still, they needed to earn a living though they never lived materially at the level that their contributions and professional status should have allowed. Kelly concluded, “PM was about the give not the get.”
  1. Some friends and observers said that PM changed after ordination, that she had been “strident” and “difficult,” words used frequently to put women down, but that PM was more pastoral after ordination.Kelly reflected on what a hard time this already deeply accomplished lawyer had at General Theological Seminary in New York City before the ordination of Episcopal women was considered valid and licit. That young white men students might seek to school her was absurd. PM’s very presence challenged white men in power there. PM used their own bulletin boards to “protest by typewriter” as they put it.It was apparently such a hard place for them to be that they chose to go to Virginia Theological Seminary in the South and not in a large city to finish their third year, though the M.Div. degree was granted by General.During these student years the seasoned and brilliant lawyer PM went through all of the canons of the Episcopal Church to see if there were laws prohibiting the ordination of women. There were not, and history was made once more though their good work.

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WATER thanks Kelly Brown Douglas for leading this stimulating and informative discussion. We thank PM for their ongoing contribution to the well-being of the world. It was divine and human collaboration at its best and with their inspiration we continue it.