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Remembering Civil Rights in 1963, 50 Years On

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President Obama's unprecedented endorsement of gay rights in his inauguration address last week -- delivered on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday -- marks the beginning of a year when Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of so many groundbreaking events of 1963: children defying dogs and firehoses in Birmingham, President Kennedy's endorsement of civil rights as a moral cause, the church bombing that claimed the lives of four little girls in Alabama, and the March on Washington. As the nation remembers these important milestones, it is important not to forget the work of a long-forgotten activist who emerged publicly that year to link civil rights to women's rights, and ultimately to her own closeted sexual identity. In doing so, an African American woman lawyer named Pauli Murray strongly criticized the leadership of the civil rights movement for excluding women as it was planning for the march that would bring 250,000 protesters to Washington that fall. More than any other individual, it is Murray who deserves credit for expanding the language of civil rights beyond the African American struggle for equality to women's rights, and ultimately to what she later called "human rights" -- and for paving the way for a President of the United States to claim that it included gays and lesbians as well.

In 1963, Pauli Murray was working hard to make Americans aware of an idea she had come up with two decades earlier -- one that influenced people as different from one another as Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Wright Edelman -- and which would help change the meaning of equality. She called it Jane Crow. Alongside the system of Jim Crow race segregation, Murray argued, there was an equally wrong system of sex segregation. Sex discrimination should be against the law for the same reasons as race discrimination. This was a radical idea at the time. In the early 1960s, there were still laws excluding women from certain jobs (like bartending), and from jury service (unless they volunteered to serve). As Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in 1961, "woman is still regarded as the center of home and family." The mainstream view, among men and many women, was that restrictions on women were a simple reflection of their essential nature as wives and mothers.

Murray strongly disagreed, and had been developing her contrary view of "civil rights" ever since she graduated first in her class at Howard Law School in 1944, hoping to become a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP. That job never materialized, but by the early 1960s the lawyer/activist found herself at the crossroads of history, as civil rights and feminist groups sometimes worked at cross purposes. Seizing the opportunity, Murray began pushing her view of Jane Crow everywhere. When Congress had to decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should apply to sex discrimination, she was there, writing a memo that went to every member of congress, arguing that it should -- and it did. When civil rights activists planned the March on Washington, she was there, publishing an open letter that criticized march leaders for appearing at the National Press Club, which excluded women from its central space. When women's rights activists pushed for enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment, she was there, convincing them that they should also look to the civil rights movement's successful use of the existing Fourteenth Amendment. She was a founding member of the National Organization for Women -- and one of its few early black leaders. Among her most important listeners was a young lawyer (now a Supreme Court Justice) named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 1971, when Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court to rule that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to sex discrimination in a case called Reed v. Reed, she placed Murray's name on the brief as the originator of that idea.

Then, as now, there were many who argued that the legacy of the civil rights movement of the 1960s should be restricted to the African American fight against Jim Crow. To most civil rights leaders, women's equality was a different cause with a different history. Murray, however, felt differently. The reason lay in what one of her friends called Murray's struggle as a "minority of minorities." Murray always felt out-of-place as a representative of African Americans -- a person who was supposed to stand in for the aspirations of her entire racial group. She was light-skinned and hailed from multi-racial family, and often found herself on the wrong side of the color lines that were supposed to divide blacks and whites. More importantly, she was a sexual dissenter. Although her own society lacked the words to name it, Murray felt as though she was a man trapped in a woman's body. Although it was the source of intense emotional discomfort, Murray wanted to do the things in life that only men did -- including becoming a black civil rights lawyer. When she found that desire frustrated, she turned to the history of the Fourteenth Amendment and argued that the amendment applied in full force to persons like herself. In the history of the movement for equal citizenship rights for black Americans, she found the tools to expand the civil rights narrative to include other groups -- not knowing where that expanded story would lead her fellow Americans.

Murray's life and career serves as a reminder of the rich diversity that has always existed within the black freedom movement -- a diversity that offers an opportunity to expand the legacy of the civil rights movement, as we remember it 50 years on. President Obama's public endorsement of gay and lesbian rights is a first such opportunity and there will be many others as the year progresses. Indeed, we will remember these civil rights milestones in the same year that the Supreme Court, including Justice Ginsburg, will decide whether constitutional protections that once helped the civil rights movement now apply to gays and lesbians. History is as much about the present as it is about the past, and it now presents us with an opportunity to make the civil rights movement speak to our own present struggles rather than freezing its legacy like a black-and-white snapshot of the world of 1963.