Pauli Murray's Biblical Hopes for Displaced African Americans

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Ninth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date

After many years of civil rights protests and activism, in 1965 Pauli Murray became the first African American to earn a law degree at Yale. Thurgood Marshall, when he was NAACP chief counsel, called Murray’s 1951 book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the bible of the civil rights movement. 

Murray later became an advocate for women’s rights and a law professor at Brandeis — but in her 60s, in a move many found bewildering, she left her secure academic spot to attend seminary. In 1977 she became the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. 

On this date the following year, during the season of Lent, Murray delivered the sermon “Can These Bones Live Again?” She preached at the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh, N.C., not far from the town of Durham, where she had spent her childhood.

In her sermon, Murray compared the forced exile of Ezekiel from Babylon with the dispersal and spiritual dislocation of her fellow African Americans.

When slavery ended in 1865, she reminded parishioners, the South was home to 90% of African Americans. But the former slaves were then dispersed — “not captured and taken away, but driven out by the intolerable conditions which they faced,” she said.

“Many of these migrants continued to look backward toward their roots, and their children have painfully discovered that the Babylon of the spirit is everywhere in the United States.”

It was a theme close to her own heart as a child of the South who had left family and community ties behind many decades earlier to seek education, opportunity, and professional fulfilment in the North. The spiritual dislocation she described was a personal experience.

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Source: Murray, Pauli, “Can These Bones Live Again?” in Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979, ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), 1998, pp. 270-276. 

Suggested reading for those interested in Pauli Murray: Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, available from W.W. Norton.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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