Beyond Civil Rights: Pauli Murray’s Nonviolence

Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM
Room 303 (Hilton Atlanta)
Nico Slate, Carnegie Mellon University
Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean had long discussed how to end racial segregation. But they had not planned to challenge Jim Crow on the day they were arrested on an interstate bus in rural Virginia. The year was 1940. The two young African American women were seated near the back of the bus when McBean began to feel a sharp pain in her side. She and Murray moved to the middle of the bus where it was less bumpy, still within the section reserved for black passengers. But the driver told them to move back. They refused and were arrested. Murray wrote friends, “We did not plan our arrest intentionally. The situation developed and, having developed, we applied what we knew of Satyagraha on the spot.”

Gandhi coined the word satyagraha, or truth force, for his approach to nonviolent civil disobedience. Long before Martin Luther King gained fame for his version of Gandhian nonviolence, Pauli Murray used Gandhian satyagraha to fight racism in the United States. A crucial detail of the story of her arrest on that bus helps to explain why Murray’s many contributions to the civil rights movement have not received the recognition they deserve. When she was arrested, Murray was passing as a man. At a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people faced severe repression within social justice movements, Murray had striven to keep her sexual identity private. Over a remarkably varied career—as an activist, lawyer, professor, and Episcopal Priest—Murray helped broaden the civil rights movement to include struggles against sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, injustice, and inequality.

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