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WUNC presents new podcast about local civil rights hero Pauli Murray


A mural of Pauli Murray, a local civil rights activist and the subject of a new WUNC podcast adorns a wall along S Buchanan Blvd in Durham on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. The piece is part of a collaborative public art project in Durham called “Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life.”

Durham native Pauli Murray fought for the equality of all people during the Civil Rights Movement and throughout the 20th century. Now, a new WUNC podcast is shining light on her legacy. 

The podcast, called "Pauli," centers around Murray,  who was a Black, queer, Southern woman. She used her experiences with racism and sexism to fight back against these issues of discrimination, the combination of which she named "Jane Crow". 

William Sturkey, an associate professor at UNC who specializes in the history of race in the American South, said in the pursuit of justice, Murray pioneered for the desegregation of UNC. Additionally, she participated in the bus boycotts and worked as a civil rights attorney. 

Inspired by Murray's civil rights efforts, podcast editor Lindsay Foster Thomas said the WUNC staff wanted to honor her legacy. Thomas said that although Murray is well-known in her hometown of Durham, she is not often recognized around the country.

"She’s an American hero who should serve as an inspiration to people the world over," she said. 

Thomas said the podcast is WUNC's first deep dive into a historical figure, and it increases the diversity of its programs.  

Murray is set apart from other activists by her focus on the legality of civil rights issues. The second episode of the podcast – “Laying Down The Law” – emphasizes this legal legacy.

The podcast discusses Murray’s 700-page document, titled "States’ Laws on Race and Color", which was more widely known as “the bible of civil rights law". Murray's ideas focused on the 14th amendment clause “separate but equal,” arguing that segregation violated this law.

Though perceived as radical at the time, Murray’s thoughts were later echoed by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, according to the podcast. He used Murray’s arguments during the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ultimately declared the unconstitutionality of segregation in public schools.

Sturkey said Murray was uniquely interested in analyzing the legal issues that encompassed Jim Crow.

Rather than always fighting on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement with arguments of morality, Sturkey said Murray was working out a legal justification for the end of segregation.

“(Murray) was thinking about what these laws meant in terms of their unconstitutionality, as opposed to just the moral suasion that we often think of with the Civil Rights Movement,” Sturkey said.

In addition to discussing Murray’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement, podcast host Leoneda Inge also dives into Murray’s impact on feminist law through her fight against “Jane Crow."

Inge said in the podcast that Murray was angered by the lack of equal protection the federal government offered women — and she began to advocate for these civil rights as well. Her texts were written to include “any person,” as opposed to “any male person”.

Murray’s work went on to inspire later generations of feminist activists and female legal minds. Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made great strides for gender equality, said Murray was “tremendously influential.”

In honor of Murray’s impact on social justice, the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham serves as a connection between present-day and historic civil rights struggles.

“Pauli was one of those people whose lives intersected with every major human rights struggle of the 20th century,” Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center said. “And we can see Pauli’s fingerprint on every single one of them.”

Because of the influence that her efforts had on gender law, Lau said that Murray is the “mother of the feminist legal strategy”.

Murray was a trailblazer for feminist and racial civil rights law, paving the way for generations of activist legal minds to come.

“It’s our hope that this series brings more attention to Murray’s role in securing liberation for Black people and equality for women, and that people will think about their own strength and ability to stand up to injustice,” Thomas said.


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