The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and the American Democratic Faith

Paul Harvey

I remember attending a conference once, I think it was around 1990 or so, and someone was talking to me about the life of Pauli Murray. I said something more or less like, "who?" The name was totally unfamiliar to me. I didn't even realize then how embarrassed I should have been by that admission; since then, reading her wonderful autobiography, encountering her in various historical works (such as Glenda Gilmore's Defying Dixie, where she plays a central role in the narrative), and now seeing the publication of works such as the one discussed below, she has come better into full view as a central player in twentieth-century American civil rights and religious history.

Sarah Azaransky's The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and the American Democratic Faith, to be published in February, is a full-length intellectual history of Murray's life and work, from young civil rights activist, to law school, and to her late life study to become an Episcopalian minister. I'm pasting in information below from the Oxford website, and definitely look forward to perusing this work.


Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a poet, lawyer, activist, and priest, as well as a significant figure in the civil rights and women's movements. Throughout her careers and activism, Murray espoused faith in an American democracy that is partially present and yet to come.

In the 1940s Murray was in the vanguard of black activists to use nonviolent direct action. A decade before the Montgomery bus boycott, Murray organized sit-ins of segregated restaurants in Washington DC and was arrested for sitting in the front section of a bus in Virginia. Murray pioneered the category Jane Crow to describe discrimination she experienced as a result of racism and sexism. She used Jane Crow in the 1960s to expand equal protection provisions for African American women. A co-founder of the National Organization of Women, Murray insisted on the interrelation of all human rights. Her professional and personal relationships included major figures in the ongoing struggle for civil rights for all Americans, including Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In seminary in the 1970s, Murray developed a black feminist critique of emerging black male and white feminist theologies. After becoming the first African American woman Episcopal priest in 1977, Murray emphasized the particularity of African American women's experiences, while proclaiming a universal message of salvation.

The Dream Is Freedom examines Murray's substantial body of published writings as well personal letters, journals, and unpublished manuscripts. Azaransky traces the development of Murray's thought over fifty years, ranging from Murray's theologically rich democratic criticism of the 1930s to her democratically inflected sermons of the 1980s. Pauli Murray was an innovative democratic thinker, who addressed how Americans can recognize differences, signaled the role of history and memory in shaping democratic character, and called for strategic coalition building to make more justice available for more Americans.


  • First book-length study of Pauli Murray's democratic vision
  • First consideration of Murray's democratic and religious thought from the 1930s through the 1980s


"The Dream Is Freedom brings much needed attention to the remarkable life of Pauli Murray--activist, author, advocate, legal scholar, theological critic, poet, and organizer for freedom, justice and democracy. Across discrimination by race, gender, sex, and class, Pauli called us to be our better selves, join the struggle for change, and fulfill the promise of what America and we could be. This is a terrific book about an extraordinary and too little recognized fighter for a better world."--Heather Booth, President, Midwest Academy

"This careful and thoughtful study offers readers important insights into the nature and meaning of Pauli Murray's contributions to our theological self-understanding and our democratic desires." --Anthony B. Pinn, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Rice University

Product Details

224 pages; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4;ISBN13: 978-0-19-974481-7ISBN10: 0-19-974481-5