Does the Good of the Many Outweigh the Good of the One?- Dr. Spock

Ok, I know starting this post with a reference to Star Trek is a bit risky, but I think Dr. Spock actually raises a wonderfully valid concept for this week’s topic. Women in the civil rights movement, particularly black women were faced with this conundrum on a regular basis. The civil rights movement was focused on gaining racial equality, and in that struggle women were instrumental in bringing that dream to fruition, often, some say, at the cost of their own goals for woman’s liberation. Stories of women putting aside their agenda for the good of the civil rights movement can be seen throughout the records of activists groups and rallies. The stories of women like Ella Baker, who saw “no place… to come into a leadership role” and felt that “harmony within the movement received higher priority than personal ambition” [1], show that there were feelings of separateness between the movements for some women. Yet other like Sandra Baxter and Marjorie Lansing found that “black women have come to see themselves as a special interest group fighting to overcome the twin barriers of racial and sexual discrimination.” [2]For these women the two movements were linked with sexism and racism being inseparable forces of prejudice one did not have to weigh the good of the one against the good of the many, they were inseparably linked. [3]

Pauli Murray born in Baltimore and raised in Durham, North Carolina, fought both racial and gender inequalities all her life. She is most notably remembered for her attempt to enter North Carolina’s all-white university which gained national news. Her attempt, though unsuccessful, gained the support of the NAACP and created a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Though unable to gain entry to the North Carolina school, she was admitted to Howard University and then University of California to become a civil rights lawyer. She was also accepted to Harvard Law School but when her gender was discovered the invitation was revoked.

Murray was prolifically active in the campaign to end inequality. A member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) she was a proponent of Gandhi’s non-violence movement and believed that the tactic could be adopted in America for the civil rights cause. Her association with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Phillip Randolph put her on a black list with Cornell University, who saw her affiliations to be too radical, and thus in the McCarthy era unsuitable for employment. [4]

Along with her attempts to break down social, political and racial boundaries she was an active proponent for women’s rights. In 1963 she wrote to Philip Randolph that she was “increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots level of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.” [5] In 1977 she became the first African American women to be an Episcopal priest. Her efforts to fight inequality saw no gender boundaries and her example has prompted the creation of a Durham based program to promote understanding in the community. The Pauli Murray Project is hosted by the Duke Human Rights Center and provides opportunities for community members to share their stories and hopes to collect those stories for the community on this site. There is no denying that to many, the civil rights movement was separate from women’s lib, but for women like Pauli Murray race and gender discrimination were one battle. Murray found a way to fight both battles, where the needs of the many coincided with the needs of the one.

[1] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 282.
[2] Ibid 276
[3] Ibid 274
[4] Duke Human Rights Center, “Pauli Murray Project”, http://paulimurrayproject.org/.
[5] Duke Human Rights Center, “Pauli Murray Project”, http://paulimurrayproject.org/.

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