A. Pauline “Pauli” Murray is the attorney, Episcopal priest and transgender, civil and women’s rights activist of which you most likely have never heard.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Murray was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus. She was the first woman admitted to Howard University’s law school and graduated at the top of her class.
In its case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, represented by future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, relied on arguments from Murray’s law school seminar paper for their legal strategy.
In the 1950s, Murray became the only African-American and, after the departure of two women, the sole female lawyer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, where she would briefly cross paths with then-summer associate Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg would later attribute her argument in Reed v. Reed to Murray, which marked the first time the U.S. Supreme Court applied the Equal Protection Clause to sex discrimination.
This month, Paul Weiss, along with Duke University’s Pauli Murray Project, is sponsoring a spring tour of “To Buy the Sun: The Challenge of Pauli Murray,” an original play by Lynden Harris. Performances of the play, which explores Murray’s life and place in history, took place at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York and Yale University. The production will make its final run Tuesday at Howard University.
“It’s such a part of the Paul Weiss story,” said Paul Weiss private funds partner Amran Hussein, who also serves as co-chair of the firm’s diversity committee.
The firm’s involvement in sponsoring the play’s spring tour came about through its work with an effort by Duke to have Murray’s family home in Durham, North Carolina, designated a national historical landmark. Shortly thereafter, Paul Weiss met up with the Pauli Murray Project to further discuss how both could collaborate to preserve and educate others on Murray’s legacy.
Within the firm’s archives are letters and correspondence written by Murray, as well as interviews with those at Paul Weiss, such as longtime partner Arthur Liman, former chief counsel of the special U.S. Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair.
One letter, in particular, Hussein highlighted is one that Murray wrote to Simon Rifkind, a now deceased senior partner at the Am Law 100 firm.
“I often think of you and the model of professional excellence you represented to me when I was an associate in the bullpen of the litigation department. You will never know how much it meant to me … ” Murray wrote. “This note is to thank you for this experience and to say how gratified I am to learn that Paul Weiss is taking on five women associates in 1969.”
Hussein said that Paul Weiss remains committed to spreading the word about Murray and her accomplishments, especially within the legal profession.
“There were just so many firsts with her,” Hussein said. “I think it’s sad that we still have to go through so many firsts, but it’s the openness of [Paul Weiss] from the very beginning to inclusion. I’m standing on her shoulders without even knowing it.”