In the early days of November 1938, Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, twenty-eight years old, a bit over five feet tall, and a descendent of generations of North Carolinians, white and black, applied to do graduate work in the sociology department at the all-white University of North Carolina (UNC). UNC lay only fifteen miles from her hometown of Durham, but Murray lived at the time in New York City. (1) UNC's Sociology Department was the foremost place in the South to study the "race problem." But the Chapel Hill program was hollow at the core, since the white professors and their white students studied in the absence of black people. Throughout the South, state laws prohibited black students from attending public white universities, relegating them to black colleges that did not include graduate or professional schools.
News of Murray's application surfaced just after the Supreme Court had ordered segregated states to provide graduate education for black residents in the case Missouri ex tel Gaines v. Canada. (2) Pauli Murray always claimed that she "knew nothing of the Lloyd Gaines' case at the time" she applied; indeed, she sent her application a month before the Court ruled for his admittance Missouri's all-white and only law school. (3) Perhaps Murray distanced herself from Gaines to represent her application as home grown, rather than federally inspired. Since there were no public graduate or professional schools for African Americans in North Carolina, her timing was perfect.
UNC acted on the application negatively the day after the Gaines decision, stating flatly, "members of your race are not admitted to the university. ,,4 At once, Murray wrote to Frank Porter Graham, president of the university, noting that the Gaines decision made the rejection illegal. "How much longer, Dr. Graham," Murray asked, "is the South going to withhold elementary human rights from its black citizens? How can Negroes, the economic backbone of the South for centuries, defend our institutions against the threats of fascism and barbarism if we too are treated the same as the Jews of Germany?" (5)
Murray's campaign for admission to UNC serves as a model for civil rights strategy prior to the decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s that historians now designate as the civil rights movement. In 1938, Murray worked as an individual, without the backing of an organization. She used varying tactics, constituencies, and degrees of radicalism, selecting with care each weapon she threw at the fortress of white supremacy. For example, Murray spoke to average white North Carolinians in a tone of quiet reasonableness, evoking a shared heritage. With UNC and state government officials, she became relentless and demanding, but always stayed exquisitely civil. She mustered up outrage as she called on national figures for help. Behind the scenes, with the black press, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leaders, and black attorneys, she acted as a conspiratorial field marshal leading a charge. At all times, she used the media as a bright beam that she directed...