On this day in 1959, civil rights lawyer and activist Pauli Murray shared her vision of equality and justice in an eloquent speech to a Black women’s group in upstate New York.
It was a time of intense racial turbulence, just one week after a handful of Black students successfully integrated public schools in Virginia. The students were defying a campaign of organized resistance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, led by Virginia politicians in what became known as “Massive Resistance.”
Pauli took the theme for her talk from the name of the group hosting her — the Poughkeepsie Neighborhood Club. She spoke about what it meant to be “good neighbors,” but her real subject was the conflict over racial equality and civil rights that was fracturing the nation.
“We are spending billions of dollars to probe outer space,” she told the audience. “We talk of visiting other planets. We seek to master the whole universe. Yet, for all our daring we are off-balance. We have not learned to master our own primitive hatreds and prejudices.”
“We seek to master the whole universe. Yet, for all our daring we are off-balance. We have not learned to master our own primitive hatreds and prejudices.”
The Poughkeepsie Neighborhood Club was founded in 1913 as a Black women’s organization committed to supporting civic work and “uplifting womanhood.”
The club promoted Emancipation Day and Negro History Sunday to churches and community groups, and encouraged Black professionals to make Poughkeepsie their home. The club also held an annual banquet commemorating the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates — that was the event where Murray was the guest speaker.
At the time of her talk, she was nationally known for her courageous and pioneering civil rights work. She’d been arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Petersburg, Virginina — 15 years before Rosa Parks. She had organized restaurant sit-ins in Washington DC — 20 years before the Greensboro sit-ins.
Her 1951 book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” had become the Bible of the civil rights movement, advancing a legal argument that led to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Murray had yet to emerge as a leader in the revived women’s movement. The following year, she became a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. And in 1965, she became the first African American to earn a JSD law degree at Yale. She joined the law faculty at Brandeis, then went on to become the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.
But on this day in 1959, Murray spoke about the importance of community, common purpose, and belonging.
“. . . that men, women and children everywhere can walk and talk together as equals and feel that they belong in the community in which they live and in the family of nations.”
“To be a good neighbor is the great moral challenge of the mid-Twentieth Century,” she said. “And the aspirations of the Neighborhood Club are also the aspirations of the world community — that men, women and children everywhere can walk and talk together as equals and feel that they belong in the community in which they live and in the family of nations.”
A new documentary — “My Name is Pauli Murray” — traces her remarkable and unusual life.
It premiered a few weeks ago at the 2021 Sundance Festival. You can watch a panel discussion with co-director Julie Cohen and cinematographer Claudia Raschke here.
The transcript of Murray’s speech, “Being Good Neighbors — The Challenge of the Mid-Twentieth Century,” is in the Pauli Murray Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
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