‘Pauli Murray’s story is our story’
Pauli Murray’s story is the quintessential American story, the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, told a crowded room Tuesday night at the Durham County Library downtown.
Murray, who grew up in Durham’s West End, was a civil rights and women’s rights activist, lawyer, scholar and the first African American female Episcopal priest. Last year, the Episcopal Church elevated her to sainthood, with her inclusion in its book of “Holy Women, Holy Men.” Her date on the Episcopal calendar is July 1, the day she died in 1985.
Murray’s story is the story of this country, Curry said. Descending from slaves and slave-owners, he said, was not unique among African Americans or Americans. She was born in 1910 and raised by her extended family in Durham.
“The notion of the segregation of the races is a fictional lie,” Curry said, noting that race is a societal category, not biology.
“We are, by virtue of our creation, already related,” he said. Murray wrote about her multi-racial heritage in her memoir, “Proud Shoes.” She fought racial and gender bias before the wave. She also struggled with racial identity and sexual identity, he said. Murray’s life was a “prophetic anticipation of the direction of egalitarian democracy and trajectory of theological integrity,” Curry said.
Murray was also an example of change happening because of dogged determinism, he said.
“At 62 she went to seminary. This was a woman who wouldn’t quit,” he said.
Curry met Murray a few times, and they were in seminary at the same time, though at different universities. She was ordained in 1977 at age 66. Curry said she was formidable and brilliant.
“You did not want to debate Pauli Murray,” he said. “This was a lawyer and a theologian. You were going to lose.” Curry recalled a debate he and Murray attended at a gathering of African American Episcopal seminarians, about the word “black,” which had been used negatively.
“I do remember she demolished someone in discussion,” Curry said.
Murray challenged social orthodoxies before others did, he said.
“She called the Church on race. She called the Church on sexuality,” Curry said.
Marshall Harvey, who attended Curry’s talk, was a UNC Chapel Hill student who attended St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh in the 1970s. As a groundbreaking woman clergy member, she was met with resistance when she came to St. Ambrose and gave the Eucharist. Men and women lined up separately, with the men not planning to accept communion from a female priest.
“The way she handled it was so smooth. She did both lines,” Harvey said. He said Murray was down to earth and was very frank with students, who could talk to her with ease. “She was just a beautiful person,” Harvey said.