Expanding the 14th Amendment

Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray was born into a mixed-race family with a heritage including slaves, slave owners, Native Americans, and Irish. She identified as being African American. Her mother died when she was three, and her father was unable to care for her. She was raised by her mother’s sisters.

After a brief marriage, she became one of the few women of color to graduate from the City University of New York. She applied for a Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina but that was turned down because of her race. She wanted the NAACP to help her fight the decision but was turned down. The civil rights movement leadership at the time was male-dominated. There was a concern that Pauli wore pants and had relationships with women.

Following an arrest by police for disorderly conduct for not sitting in the black section of a bus, Pauli took on a more activist role for civil rights causes. She enrolled in Howard University Law School. As the only woman in her class, she experienced sexism and coined the term Jane Crow to describe her experiences. In spite of the doubts of the faculty, she graduated first in her class. Traditionally those who graduated first in their law school class were invited to Harvard for graduate work. Pauli wasn’t invited because Harvard would not permit women to attend.

Pauli became a civil rights activist after she passed her bar exam. She especially advocated for the rights of African American women whose cause was often ignored by the male leaders of the civil rights movement.

Pauli advanced the belief that civil rights cases should address the 14th Amendment issues directly rather than trying to prove that separate facilities were not equal. Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP and future Supreme Court Justice, agreed with her approach. Pauli’s approach was used to strike down the earlier separate but equal ruling of the Supreme Court. Her approach to 14th Amendment became pivotal to its expanded application

She then focused on extending the protections of the 14th Amendment to women. She was a co-author with Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the legal brief that led the Supreme Court to assure that the 14th Amendment applied to women.

Some hidden heroes leave a legacy that extends well beyond their lifetimes. In Pauli’s case, she made a lasting impact on the rights of people of color and women. Her impact is still being felt today in 14th Amendment cases involving the rights of the LGBTQ+ community as well as immigrants.

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“True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”  – Pauli Murray

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