Play Marks the Legacy of Pauli Murray (PW 1956)
April 20, 2018
A new production of a biographical play, To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray, illuminates the struggles and accomplishments of an extraordinary woman. Paul, Weiss is proud to serve as a lead sponsor of the play’s 2018 tour.
In 1956, Pauli Murray (PW 1956) received a call from Lloyd Garrison inviting her to join Paul, Weiss’s Litigation Department. Murray described Garrison’s offer as “startling news.” As an African-American woman, she had faced many challenges in pursuing a legal career. Her tenure at Howard Law School – where she graduated first in her class as the only woman – was punctuated with protest and demonstrations. Her activism would bring her to the attention of President Franklin
Roosevelt; Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt would maintain a lifelong friendship. But even the president’s personal recommendation could not gain Murray access to graduate programs unwilling to admit women to their ranks.
In her autobiography, Murray remembered the “amazing good fortune” of Paul, Weiss’s offer, recalling, “The professional opportunity that had eluded me in the past opened so unexpectedly that I felt like a sandlot player catapulted overnight into Major League Baseball.” As a member of the firm’s Litigation Department, she was struck by the intensity of the work and “the magnitude of the firm’s operations.” She would recall the experience as “decisive for my future growth,” writing, “When I left the firm after three years, I carried with me the assurance of having been tested by the most exacting standards of the legal profession, an experience that enabled me to face new challenges with greater self-confidence.”
Murray would later write to Judge Rifkind to express gratitude for her transformative time at the firm, in a letter preserved in the firm’s archive:
Throughout her career, Murray honed extraordinary talents as an activist, lawyer, author and minister. As early as 1938, she sought to integrate the all-white University of North Carolina, an effort that won the backing of the NAACP and garnered national publicity. Murray’s nearly 750-page-long book on segregation, entitled States’ Laws on Race and Color, was widely disseminated by the A.C.L.U upon its publication in 1950. Thurgood Marshall referred to it as “the bible” that lay behind his arguments in the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Murray’s early legal writing on gender discrimination – including a speculative plan for rendering sex discrimination unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment – so influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg that the future Supreme Court justice named Murray co-author of her first brief to the Supreme Court. In that landmark case of Reed v. Reed, the Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits differential treatment based on sex. Murray would go on to work with Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, and in 1977, at age 62, Murray became the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.
Murray’s story is celebrated in To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray, a play by Lynden Harris, directed by Kathryn Hunter-Williams and produced by the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice at Duke University in collaboration with the creative collective Hidden Voices. The play premiered in 2011 at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, North Carolina. Its 2018 tour presents the work in New York City at Trinity Church Wall Street; in New Haven at the new Yale residential college named in Murray’s honor; and in Washington, D.C. at Howard University. Addressing Murray’s time practicing law at Paul, Weiss, the play also speaks to her relationship with the firm’s then-office manager, Irene Barlow, “the person she loved most,” whose death would inspire Murray to become a priest. The play further dramatizes Murray’s preparation for her historic sermon at The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a speech watched by two million viewers via national broadcast.