“Hope is a song in a weary throat,” the iconic civil rights activist, lawyer, friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, National Organization for Women co-founder and poet Anna Pauline (a.k.a. Pauli) Murray, wrote in her poetry collection “Dark Testament and Other Poems.”
I’ve been thinking of Murray’s stirring words since learning that Yale University has just named one of its two new residential colleges after Murray. As a Yale Divinity School graduate, I’m thrilled that Yale has honored Murray, the first African-American to graduate from Yale with a doctorate in judicial science (in 1965). This is the first time that Yale has named a residential college after a woman and/or a person of color. That’s the good news.
My heart sank when, at the same time, I learned that Yale, after decades of impassioned controversy and protest, has refused to rename its residential college named for John Caldwell Calhoun, a leading slavery advocate, seventh United States vice president and an 1804 graduate of the university. In announcing this decision, the Yale Daily News reported that Yale President Peter Salovey said that keeping the name would help the community to remember “one of the most disturbing aspects” of its history. “Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Salovey said.
As a white woman, I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to talk about this as a person of color. My family owned no slaves, I’m queer, low-income and female. But, no question, I have white privilege. I agree with Salovey: We should remember, not obscure, our history – especially, its most hideous aspects. Yet, doesn’t naming a building after someone honor that person and that person’s history? How is naming a residential college after Calhoun not honoring his legacy?
Nonetheless, as Patricia Bell-Scott, author of “The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice,” wrote me in an email, Yale’s honoring Murray is an important step.
“The decision … came in response to student protest and heated discussion about the symbols of slavery and institutional barriers in keeping with Murray’s legacy,” said Bell-Scott, who is African American and Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies & Human Development and Family Science at the University of Georgia. “She agitated all her life for human rights and she always saw her work in historical context.”
Murray, who lived from 1910 to 1985 and who had a long-term relationship with a woman, spent her life fighting what she called “Jim Crow” and “Jane Crow.” Her work for social justice included, as a Howard University student, organizing sit-ins against eateries that wouldn’t seat people of color; crafting the legal strategy that ensured that sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act; and becoming one of the first women to be ordained as a priest by the Episcopal Church in 1977.
Murray’s commitment to justice became personal to me when I recently spoke to my friend, the Rev. Joan Forsberg. Forsberg told me that, in the 1960s, Murray helped her (then) husband, the Rev. Bob Forsberg. “Bob was doing urban ministry in New Haven. A white landlord was unfairly evicting a black woman from her apartment,” she said. “Things escalated and he called on Pauli Murray for free legal counsel and she was immediately responsive,” she said.
Playing “what if” with history is tricky. Who knows what someone from another time would do if they lived today? Yet, I can’t help but think that Murray would applaud, support and join in the protest and discussion now taking place at Yale (and many other universities nationwide) over the naming of buildings for slave owners and racism on campuses.
“Murray was in continual dialogue about how to create a humane and loving community,” Bell-Scott said.
Let’s honor Murray by carrying on this difficult, but essential dialogue – by working for justice – with all of our heart and soul.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.