Two civil rights lawyers, Rosenwald Fellows, found in new book by Kenneth Mack

Posted on July 25th, 2012 by

On Monday evening, July 23rd, Harvard Law professor Dr. Kenneth Mack presented his new book, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer, to a spirited crowd at Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington D.C. Dr. Mack explained that, while the story of civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston is a familiar one to most people, his book is at once a more detailed history of the era and a reflection on the subjective experience of a group of characters who found themselves “representing their race” in the legal profession.

Dr. Mack read two passages from Representing the Race at Politics & Prose, the second of which dealt with a little known civil rights attorney named Pauli Murray who argued that legally there was no distinction between equal rights for blacks and equal rights for women, preferring to refer to them as a single issue: “human rights.” Mack treats her personal life in some depth in the book, explaining how her “unresolved crisis of identity,” as a biracial, potentially transgendered, individual, contributed to her drive to fight discrimination through the law. Because Murray was profoundly uncomfortable in society—due to her position at the margins of both race and gender—she serves as an ideal case study for Dr. Mack’s book. Like the other attorneys he discusses, Murray obtained a kind of agency and freedom from her individual discomfort by taking on the role of an outspoken trial lawyer for civil rights cases.

Pauli Murray, 1946
Photo credit: Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

Murray graduated from Howard Law School in 1944 and, according to the Chicago Defender, received a Rosenwald Fund grant “to analyze the extension of minority rights under New Deal labor and social legislation and court rulings, and for graduate work at Harvard.” As the top graduate of Howard, Murray was a prime candidate for Harvard, but her application was denied because of her gender. Murray’s appeal of this decision to the Harvard administration is a great read and is published in Rebels in Law, Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers, edited by J. Clay Smith Jr. In it, she diplomatically argues for the practicality and inevitability of including women in the study of law but also uses wit in a revealing way. “Very recent medical examination reveals me to be a functionally normal woman with perhaps a ‘male slant’ on things, which may account for my insistence upon getting into Harvard.” This sounds cheeky if you haven’t read Dr. Mack’s book. In fact, Murray had actually requested examination by doctors to see if she was a hermaphrodite and had also explored the use of male hormone injections. Mack uses this quote to demonstrate how Murray’s personal incompatibility with existing social categories drove her “insistence” upon success in the legal battle against discrimination.

Murray’s connection to the Rosenwald Fund is an intriguing one. She later explained that in her application to the fund, she had stated she would like to attend Harvard Law but hadn’t yet been accepted. Then, when she saw in the newspaper that a grant was awarded for her to continue study at Harvard, she was as surprised as anyone. This public mix-up added fuel to the fire of her appeal. Although ultimately she was unsuccessful in her bid to attend Harvard (she went to University of California, Berkeley instead) the experience probably helped cement in her mind the congruence of discrimination against blacks and discrimination against women, which she summed up perfectly with the term “Jane Crow.” Murray was ahead of her time once again, but not by much. Just six years later, Harvard Law admitted its first female students, to little fanfare and almost no blowback from alumni.

Another Rosenwald fellow figures in Dr. Mack’s new book. Robert Lee Carter also attended Howard Law School and went on to become a high-ranking NAACP lawyer who argued in front of the Supreme Court during Brown v. Board of Education. Newspapers reported in 1940 that Carter had received a Rosenwald grant “For a study of the constitutional protection which American courts have given civil liberties since 1900, at Columbia University,” work that was pertinent to the legal argument that ultimately would demonstrate the unconstitutionality of institutionalized segregation. Mr. Carter passed away earlier this year.

Robert Lee Carter, circa 1940s
Photo credit: Library of Congress, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People records

By Michael Rose