THE BLOG
08/20/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Saint Pauli Murray

It's not often that you come across a saint named Pauli. Saints are supposed to have names like Aloysius, Xavier and Francis, and they're supposed to be engraved in stone on buildings, or at the least, have colorful stained-glass likenesses adorning a church somewhere. But during her lifetime, Pauli Murray never really cared about the way things were "supposed" to be. And now, 27 years after her death and nary a stained glass or carved stone to her name, the Episcopal Church, as of July, has proclaimed Pauli Murray a saint for our time.

The title of saint is just the latest descriptor of a woman who lived a remarkable life. Murray, born in 1910 and raised in segregated North Carolina, was a civil rights activist, feminist, attorney, poet and priest. None of these things were easy to be for a black woman in the 1920s and 1930s. However, her race and gender turned out to be both the barrier to, and the motivation for, almost all of her accomplishments.

Indeed, everything she did, in one way or another, connected back to her search for equality and freedom, and that yearning for equality was spurred by her faith. From a young age, she recognized that segregation was, at its foundation, a vivid sin on American life -- pulsating with legal codes and cultural disgust, intended to degrade a whole race of people.

Her opposition to Jim Crow -- expressed through various means of activism, writings, legal work and nonviolent protest -- was, as she herself labeled it, a "spiritual resistance." In her work with organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation (an ecumenical organization focused on issues of social justice), the American Jewish Congress and the Women's Division of Christian Service, she continually utilized the traditions, skills and moral clarity of faith organizations to attack inequality.

In the spring of 1940, she was kicked off a bus and arrested in Petersburg, Va., for "creating a disturbance" by not willingly giving up her seat to white passengers. She was motivated by her study of Gandhi's techniques of nonviolent resistance -- techniques that would, 15 years later, be put to use in Montgomery, Ala., by a shy seamstress and young Baptist preacher.

Her study and work with these techniques exemplified a faith tested by struggle, but based in the idea that the equalizing "power of the spirit" would overcome any barrier to equality. Like many African-Americans and women of her generation, she was often barred from institutions of power and opportunity (she was rejected from her state's university, UNC-Chapel Hill, for her race, and from Harvard University for her gender). However, in 1977, only a few short years after the Episcopal Church allowed for the ordination of women, Pauli Murray broke one last barrier in her lifetime: She became ordained as the first female African-American priest.

The power of her spirit was on display with that ordination, and is now on display for all to see -- and learn from -- with her sainthood. Murray was, as one of the bishops involved with her commemoration as an Episcopal saint put it, "one of these people who was a bridge person." Her life was a bridge from era where women and African-Americans had few rights to one where they are recognized as full and equal citizens, capable of being presidents, priests, CEOs and, yes, saints.

As a younger person, my generation is the beneficiary of Murray's work. The diversity we take for granted in our schools, offices, friendships and families was created by people like her. Maybe, then, it's OK that Pauli Murray doesn't have a traditional name or a reflective pane of stained glass. Her sainthood -- and her life's work -- is reflected in a generation, and a country, made more equal.

Benjamin Marcus contributed to this piece.