Pauli Murray to be memorialized on U.S. quarter

Yale alum Pauli Murray, who helped lay the intellectual foundation of the civil and women’s rights movements, to be featured on U.S. quarter.
Illustration - Pauli Murray 2023 U.S. quarter dollar

While serving at the forefront of the civil and women’s rights movements, Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div. endured many defeats and setbacks. But she maintained hope and lived to see — as she once put it — her “lost causes found.” 

Murray’s legacy and profound sense of hope will be memorialized on a special edition of the U.S. quarter as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, which celebrates the accomplishments of remarkable women from a variety of fields and walks of life.

Admirers say it is a fitting tribute to Murray, a visionary writer, scholar, jurist, and Episcopal priest who helped lay the intellectual foundations of the 20th-century struggles against racism and sexism. A Yale alum, she is the namesake of Pauli Murray College, one of the university’s 14 residential colleges.

We try very hard to live up to Pauli’s legacy in the college, embedding numerous events every year dedicated to them, including an annual reading group and birthday party,” Tina Lu, head of Pauli Murray College, said. “The college has also been fortunate enough to welcome a number of guests who knew Pauli personally. I tell students who meet these friends of Pauli that they’re now just a hug away from Pauli themselves.”

Murray’s coin, the 11th in the series, will be issued in 2024. The quarter’s obverse, or heads, side depicts a portrait of George Washington created in the early 1930s by sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser. The reverse, or tails, side features Murray’s face framed within the letters of the word “HOPE,” symbolizing Murray’s belief that societal change is possible when rooted in hope, according to the U.S. Mint’s description.  

A line from Murray’s poem “Dark Testament,” in which she characterized hope as “a song in a weary throat,” is inscribed beside the civil rights leader’s visage.

In 1999, Congress authorized the U.S. Mint to produce coins that celebrate U.S. history, culture, and important people and places, beginning with a series of coins celebrating the 50 U.S. states. The Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 authorized three new circulating coin programs: the American Women Quarters Program, which honors women who have shaped U.S. history (2022-2025); a series that will celebrate the nation’s 250th anniversary (2026); and a series recognizing youth sports (2027-2030).

Women recognized in the current series were recommended with input from multiple partner organizations, including the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, the National Women’s History Museum, and the Bipartisan Women’s Caucus. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen selected the final honorees.

Other women honored through the program include writer and activist Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, political figure and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, journalist and activist Jovita Idar, and film actress Anna May Wong.   

We were standing on her shoulders’

Born in Baltimore in 1910 and orphaned at a young age, Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina by her aunt and grandparents. Wanting to leave the segregated South, Murray enrolled in Hunter College in New York City, graduating in 1933 after deferring her studies due to the Great Depression. In 1938, she applied to the University of North Carolina to pursue graduate studies in sociology but was rejected because of her race despite a Supreme Court ruling earlier that year requiring state schools to offer graduate education to Black students. The episode earned Murray wide recognition as a civil rights leader.

In 1940, Murray and a friend were arrested in Virginia after refusing to sit in broken seats reserved for Black passengers. Both were convicted of disorderly conduct. About 15 years later, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man, initiating the Montgomery Bus Boycott and energizing the civil rights movement.

Four years later Murray received her J.D. from Howard Law School, where she was her class’s valedictorian and only woman. In 1965, she received her J.S.D. from the Yale Law School, becoming the first African American to do so. She was a founding member of both the Congress for Racial Equality and the National Organization for Women.

Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the “bible” for lawyers working on Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases. In 1965, Murray co-authored “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” which drew parallels between gender-based discrimination and Jim Crow laws. In 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a law professor at Rutgers University, relied heavily on “Jane Crow” in crafting the arguments of her successful Supreme Court case, Reed v. Reed, challenging sex discrimination. Ginsburg named Murray as a co-author of the brief, though Murray had not contributed to writing it.

We knew when we wrote that brief that we were standing on her shoulders,” Ginsburg said years later.

Later in life, Murray, who died in 1985, became the first African-American woman to become an Episcopalian minister.

A gifted writer of prose and poetry, Murray authored two well-received autobiographies: “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family” (1956) and “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage” (1987). Just this week, Yale University Press published “To Speak a Defiant Word,” a compilation of Murray’s speeches and sermons.

Murray’s sole poetry collection, “Dark Testament and Other Poems,” was published in 1970. In “Dark Testament: Verse 8,” Murray reflects on the meaning of hope to a people who have long endured oppression and suffering. The passage that helped inspire the design of Murray’s quarter reads in part:

Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.

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