Pauli Murray: Fighting Jane and Jim Crow

This lesson is part of The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement series. This series introduces students to four lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people of African descent, and their allies. All four—James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin—were indispensable to the ideas, strategies and activities that made the civil rights movement a successful political and social revolution.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Identify Pauli Murray, her accomplishments and her political activism.
  • Distinguish between “Jane” and “Jim” Crow.
  • Interrogate how activists usually fight multiple battles at the same time.
  • Analyze the connections among civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights.
Essential Questions
  • What did Pauli Murray accomplish in her life?
  • What is the difference between “Jane” and “Jim” Crow?
  • What obstacles did Murray confront due to her race, gender and sexuality?
  • How did Murray assert herself as a voice in the civil rights struggle despite the challenges she faced?
  • What was her definition of “justice” and do you agree or disagree with her?

In this lesson, students will explore the life, activism and ideas of an African-American woman and lesbian who fought discrimination in the areas of race, gender and sexuality. Murray attended Howard University School of Law, where she became further aware of gender discrimination. Despite the challenges she faced as the only woman in her cohort, in 1944, Murray graduated number one in her class. The following year, she earned a master’s of law degree from the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. While at Berkeley, she wrote a thesis titled “The Right the Equal Employment Opportunity,” the first comprehensive study on the subject. According to the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, “The NAACP adopted her approach to Brown v. Board of Education and borrowed the arguments she made in a seminar paper she wrote while a law student.” Murray is a little-known figure whose life and activism illuminate the connections among the struggles for civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights.


Who Was Pauli Murray?

  1. As a class, read “Pauli Murray: Attorney and Civil Rights Activist.” While reading, complete the handout. Use the biography to list Murray’s life accomplishments. (Note: List of suggested accomplishments included for instructor.) 
  2. When you are done, select one achievement that you think is her most significant. In the space provided on the handout, explain the reasons for your choice. In addition to the source provided for you, remember to draw upon what you already know about the inequities women, African Americans and LGBT people faced at the time. 
  3. Share the accomplishment you selected and your reasons for selecting it during a short class discussion. 


Word Work

Inferring From the Context

Independently, read “Women Battling Jim Crow and Jane Crow” in its entirety. As you read, record on the handout the sentences where the following words are used: Jim Crow, Jane Crow, imperative, token and deliberate.

  1. When you are done, review each word as a class. Consider these questions: What can you infer about the meaning of the word based on its use in the sentence? How can you use the context around the word to help you define it? 
  2. Individually, or as a class, come up with a single definition. Repeat, until the handout is completed. 


Close and Critical Reading

  1. Working independently, answer the reading questions on the handout that accompanies the “Woman Battling Jim Crow and Jane Crow” article, using complete sentences. 
  2. Briefly discuss the article and your answers to the reading questions as a class. (Note: Consider having a discussion about blogs: Who writes blogs? What kind of fact checking happens? How are blogs different from a newspaper article? For instance, this blog was written by a teacher or professor for other teachers. Why would a reader want/need to know this information?)


Community Inquiry

  1. Working in groups of three to four students, analyze the following quote from “Pauli Murray Bound for Sainthood.” 
    “Pauli Murray, a woman who functioned in a predominately men’s world, helped in the civil rights struggle, helped in the struggle for women’s equality, helped in the struggle for rights for gay and lesbian people, helped in the struggle to make this world a better place. She was not always popular. People did not always agree with her, but they knew where Pauli Murray stood. She was a bridge person who helped to bridge some of the divides that keep us separated from each other.” 
  2. On chart paper, answer the following questions: Do you agree with the quote? Why or why not? What have you learned about Murray that supports your conclusion? Take turns sharing your responses with the class. 


Write to the Source

Using all of the materials used for this lesson, write a one-page essay comparing and contrasting Jim Crow and Jane Crow. Do you agree with the distinction that Murray made between the two? Do you think that one was worse than the other, or do you see them as equal oppressions? Explain your answer using the facts of Murray’s life to support your argument.


Do Something

During March, which is Women’s History Month, create a History Walk that will educate your peers about Pauli Murray’s remarkable accomplishments. Your History Walk should not just include information about Murray, but also images and background information about the places she lived, when she lived in these places, and the significance of her accomplishments during a period when discrimination was rife. You may also choose to create a guide to help your peers navigate the timeline and History Walk.


Extension Activity

Research the Lily Ledbetter Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on his first day in office in January 2009. The Lily Ledbetter Act aims to make sure that women receive equal pay for performing equal work with men. To what extent did the Lily Ledbetter Act address the issue of equal treatment of women that Pauli Murray advocated for?

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More