Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Pauli Murray: MG Biography of a Little-Known Civil Rights Activist and Interview with Author Terry Catasús Jennings~Julie Phend


Who was Pauli Murray?

How many of you know the name Pauli Murray? Until I read Rosita Stevens-Holsey and Terry Catasús Jennings' MG biography, Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist, released this February, I had never heard of this incredible woman.  

Julie’s Review:

This book, written in verse for ages 10-14, tells the story of Pauli Murray, a activist for Civil Rights and Feminism before either movement was fully established. Born the child of mixed-race parents in Baltimore in 1910 but raised by an aunt in Durham, North Carolina, Pauli Murray never fit in.

 

Bright and perceptive, she “saw injustice and unfairness with uncommon clarity. And she didn’t accept it.” Instead, Pauli Murray tackled injustice with all the force of her determination. Despite poverty, she graduated from Hunter College, taught for the WPA Education Project, and wrote articles pointing out injustice. 

Pauli Murray, 1944


Her activist heart sent her on a quest to change the Jim Crow laws that held back her race at every turn. She entered Howard University School of Law and graduated top of her class, ahead of all her male peers. A paper she wrote while at Howard became the basis for arguments in Brown vs Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that finally toppled those laws, though Pauli never received credit for it.

 

Despite a prize for her exceptional scholarship, she was barred admission to Harvard because of her gender. So she tackled gender laws along with Jim Crow laws. She went on to get a master’s in law from Boalt Hall of Law in Berkeley, California, and a doctorate from Yale University. She was a participant in President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and a founding member of the National Organization of Women. (NOW)

 

Pauli Murray battled poverty, discrimination, racial and gender barriers. And she never gave up.

 

This moving and inspirational biography tackles difficult issues head-on, while creating a vivid portrait of an incredible woman. The free-verse form makes it easy to read and allows the authors to return again and again to the important themes of Pauli Murray’s life. 

 

Interview with Author Terry Catasús Jennings:

Terry Catasús Jennings

Julie: You’ve had a big year! You published the Definitely Dominguita series, Pauli Murray’s biography, and have a picture book, The Little House of Hope, coming out this month.

 

Terry: Julie, thank you so much for hosting me on the GROG Blog. I’ve been very fortunate. All these projects have been in the works for a while, and then their paths converged. 

 

 

 

 

Julie: I was surprised I had never heard of Pauli Murray, even though as a middle school teacher, I taught both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. How did you learn about Pauli and come to partner with her niece, Rosita Stevens-Holsey, to write this book? 

Rosita Stevens-Holsey

 

Terry: I discovered Pauli Murray during research for The Women’s Liberation Movement: 1960-1990. The more I learned, the more I felt her biography needed to be made available to young readers. While I could do justice to her story as a feminist, I could not do justice to her story as a Black person, so I wanted a partner. My research led me to the Pauli Murray Center, and through them, I tried, at first unsuccessfully, to find Dr. Murray’s family. Then I went to see a play about Pauli Murray at Howard University. There was a row of seats reserved for the family, so I introduced myself. When I said I was looking for someone to work with me, Rosita raised her hand. She’s a teacher!  And she was already working to promote her aunt’s legacy. What could be better than that? The partnership has been as productive as it has been delightful. 

 

 Julie: Why did you choose middle grade readers as your audience? 

 

Terry: I wrote the story, with Rosita’s help and concurrence, so it would be accessible and engaging to an audience beginning with fourth grade. To me, that’s when young readers can understand the damage and humiliation of the Jim Crow laws, the struggles of women in the workplace, and the rights given us by the Constitution. I hope that anyone above the age of ten can enjoy this book and garner new knowledge and understanding from it.
Pauli Murray, Lawyer

Julie: Why did you choose to write the book in free verse?

 

Terry: Pauli just seemed to flow in verse. There were earlier prose versions, including a picture book, but none of them seemed to have the heart that Pauli Murray demanded. At one point, I started writing verses, and then it flowed. At first, our agent wasn’t crazy about the verse version, but then Courtney Fahey from Little Bee Books became interested. She liked verse and fell in love with the project. I felt writing the biography in verse would honor Dr. Murray, who was herself a poet. Our aim was to tell her story in a respectful way that would be accessible to young readers. And for folks with a little more age and a little less time, verse provides a way to learn about a transformative individual in an easy manner.

 

Julie: What do you love about this book?

 

Terry: There are certain passages I love. The verse about Pauli’s mother knowing her life might last no longer than a whisper on a windy night. The imagery of Pauli being prickly and a thorn in the side of those in power. 






Pauli Murray, 1967
But what I most love about the book is what it teaches young readers about a person who was previously ignored. It shows how difficult it was to gain the rights we now take for granted. How some legislators did what was right, and others got around those forward steps and caused human rights in our country to regress. Pauli Murray believed in the Fourteenth Amendment—the one that guarantees all will be treated equally by the laws. Right now, laws are being passed that would not pass the Pauli Murray test. They do not conform with the Fourteenth Amendment. I love that this book comes at a time when it can remind all of us that our only weapon in the fight for human rights is the ballot box.

 

Julie: Thanks so much, Terry, for sharing your passion for this subject and for introducing us to this amazing woman!

 

*Watch for next week’s Grog blog post with a sneak preview of Little House of Hope and Part 2 of my interview with Terry.

18 comments:

  1. Julie: Thank you for introducing me to Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, the 20th-century civil rights activist, and more.

    Such a remarkable woman with a broad vision of justice for all. Her story must be told.

    Suzy Leopold

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    1. Thanks, Suzy. I felt the same way! Thanks to Terry and Rosita for introducing all of us to Pauli Murray!

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    2. Suzy, I'm so glad you liked the Rev. Dr. Murray. I have been interested in her since 2012 when I "ran" into her while researching another book. What perseverance. What a vision, right? I totally agree with you. Many people chafed at what was happening, but Pauli Murray did something about it.

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  2. Fascinating interview, ladies! Thank you for sharing this incredible life story with us.

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  3. Wow, great interview. Pauli Murray seems like an incredibly inspiring person.

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    1. She is inspiring. The bizarre thing is why it has taken this long to bring her story out. The treatises on her are few but long. I hope this book will make her life, accomplishments and her example available to many, many, many young readers

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  4. Wow, I had never heard of Dr. Pauli Murray either; she has such an impressive "never-give-up story." I also appreciate how your questions, Julie, led to author Terry Catusus' route to finding a co-author. Impressive!

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    1. You're right Kathy, she never gave up. And she had so many reasons. I often wonder how she would feel today with all that is going on. And yes, Julie is a superstar interviewer

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  5. wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing this book and Terry's work on bringing the story to life.

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    1. Thank you for reading, dear friend. This was a labor of love and I'm glad it got out there.

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  6. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to read this book and interview Terry. She's a fascinating and fun person to talk to. Be sure to check back next week for Part II of my interview and a sneak preview of her upcoming picture book, Little House of Hope.

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  7. I can't wait to read this book. Incorporates all that I have been looking for in a middle grade novel. Great interview. I just happened to read about her recently and was surprised myself I never heard of her and wanted to know more. I hope this book hits the bestsellers list quickly. A life we all need to know about.

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    1. It seems to me it's about time Pauli Murray becomes a household name! I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.

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    2. From your lips.... I do hope she becomes a household word and I hope her belief in the Fourteenth Amendment takes hold again. She was such a force for good.

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  8. Terrific interview. I had never heard of Pauli Murray. It's refreshing to see her story unfold as we still face injustices.

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    1. Yes. She was a very moderate person in one respect, and I wonder if she would have become more militant seeing the injustices with which we are still dealing

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