Pauli (born Anna) Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910. Both Murray's parents died when she was young, her mother in 1914 and her father in 1923, and relatives in North Carolina raised her and her brothers.
Murray attended Hunter College for as long as she could, but was unable to continue funding her education after the Stock Market Crash in 1929. In the 1930s, Murray worked for the Works Project Administration (WPA) as a remedial reading teacher. She also began to publish articles and poems in magazines during this period, as well as serializing a novel.
Murray also became involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement during the 30s. In 1938, she campaigned to be admitted to University of North Carolina, which had been all white up to that point. Murray's campaign ultimately failed, but garnered a lot of publicity. Murray was also involved in transportation desegregation battles, and she was arrested and imprisoned in 1940 for refusing to sit in the back of a Virginia bus.
In 1941, Murray enrolled in law school at Howard University. The next year, she became a founding member of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Murray graduated from Howard in 1944 and moved on to the University of California at Berkeley (after being denied admission to Harvard due to her gender), where she received her master’s degree.
After completing her education, Murray moved to New York City to work full-time in the Civil Rights movement. In 1951, she published a book, States' Laws on Race and Color, which was considered by many to be the premier work on the subject. She followed this book with another book, this time about the racial struggles of her parents and grandparents, and an extended trip to Ghana to explore her roots.
In 1960, President Kennedy appointed Murray to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. Murray continued her activism in the Civil Rights movement, but was critical of its male-centered nature.
In 1977, Murray became the first African-American woman to become an Episcopal priest.
Pauli Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh in 1985.