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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 78-82

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Pauli Murray
The Brandeis Years

Joyce Antler

Pauli Murray's influence, and her amazing trajectory of interests and causes, spanned much of the twentieth century. While much of her pioneering work for civil rights and women's rights has become well known, the story of her remarkable experience at Brandeis University, where she taught in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has yet to be told. Even I—who came to Brandeis' American Studies Department six years after Pauli had left it, assuming the leadership of the fledgling women's studies program as well—never fully understood the extent to which Pauli's battles on behalf of women's issues at the university made possible my own. 1

Arriving at Brandeis in the fall of 1968 as a visiting professor of American Civilization, Pauli helped make possible the transition of the American Civilization program to an American Studies department two years later. She introduced the first courses in legal studies, African American studies, and women's studies, curricular innovations that would outlast her residence at the university. Overlapping the awakening of second-wave feminism and the peak years of the black power and student power movements, Murray's new academic position offered momentous, but daunting, possibilities. In her memoirs, she described her five years at Brandeis as "the most exciting, tormenting, satisfying, embattled, frustrated, and at times triumphant period of my secular career." 2

In spring 1968, she had been invited to join Brandeis' American Civilization program by the incoming second president, Morris Abram, who was to succeed founding president Abram Sachar. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Lawrence Fuchs, professor of politics and chair of the American Civilization program, urged Abram to seek an African American faculty member who could introduce courses on the black experience at Brandeis. 3 After some initial ambivalence, Murray became convinced that the opportunity to introduce legal studies and African American studies courses at Brandeis would be a "thrilling adventure." The fact that Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she so greatly admired, had been on Brandeis' faculty and board of trustees, and that she associated the institution with its founding social justice ideals, helped persuade her to take the job.

Murray was given the Louis Stulberg Chair in Law and Politics in 1971, receiving tenure as full professor in American Studies. She regularly taught courses including "American Legal Systems," "Law and Social [End Page 78] Change," "Women in American Society," "Civil Rights and Black Power" (later, "Civil Rights and the Black Experience"). Her lectures were well-structured, thorough, and meticulously prepared: she was a "devoted, conscientious teacher . . . [even] anal," one colleague commented, "like an old-fashioned school marm." 4 Students considered her to be a "tough professor," a "tough critic . . . who commanded respect." "I think you have a good brain in your head but you need to apply it," was a typical Murray comment. 5 Her training and seemingly natural talents as a lawyer, her highly rational intellect, and her strong convictions made it likely that her point of view would emerge as an argument. When members of my department would sometimes comment that I was "doing a Pauli Murray," I took this to mean that I was arguing a principled stand, but perhaps in a way they would consider "uppity." 6

Pauli worried most about her relations with the black Brandeis students. She writes poignantly in her autobiography about the takeover of Brandeis' Ford Hall by black students on 8 January 1969, presenting the university with ten demands. The occupation typified the contrast between Murray's patient resistance to race discrimination and the black students' militancy. When called in to negotiate with the students, she wound up lecturing them about the nature of racial "suffering," and telling them, in fact, that she herself had experienced much more discrimination on the basis of her gender than her race, an argument which did not go over well with the rebels. 7 Murray had little connection to the Department of Afro-American Studies formed later that year in...


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