The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, 66, ordained last month as the first black female Episcopal priest, leans forward to light another of the unfiltered cigarettes she chainsmokes. "This society is not hospitable to persons of color, women or left-handed people," she says. "I'm just trying to meet the competition."
Outdo might be a better term.
She spent time in Southern jails for her civil rights work in the early 1940s, when that movement was still in its fledgling stage. Her academic credentials include a doctorate in constitutional law from Yale and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth.
A published poet and the protege of Stephen Vincent Benet and Harlem Renaissance poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, she left a distinguished law career in Manhattan in the late '50s to work on her writing at the MacDowell Colony, a haven for artists and writers in Petersborough, N.H., whose residents have included critic Alfred Kazin and composer Aaron Copland.
At times it almost seems as though there have been several Pauli Murrays, each of whom excelled at what she did.
There is Pauli Murray the activist, who sued Harvard Law School in 1964 when it refused to admit her solely on the basis of Sex (Harvard began admitting women in 1950) and who, following the 1963 March on Washington, criticized black leaders for their "token recognition" of the contributions of black women.
There is Pauli Murray the lawyer, the recipient of three law degrees who, for several years during the late '50s, was the only female attorney with the prestigious and clubby Manhattan firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison.
Pauli Murray the educator was vice president of Benedict College, a small, predominantly black school in South Carolina in 1967 and Distinguished Professor of Law and Politics at Brandeis from 1968 to 1973.
An ordained priest with the Massachusetts diocese, she is currently awaiting a job offer, having spent two years studying at General Theological Seminary in New York and the past year and a half at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
But it is Murray's achievements as a writer of which she seems proudest. She says, "In my life I have never thought, 'Next, I want to do this.' The only thing I've ever said I wanted to do was write."
In addition to "Dark Testament," her book of poems, the first of which was published in 1945 in "South Today," she is the author of several legal texts and "Proud Shoes," an account of her childhood in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the grandmother who raised her. Murray has recently completed a sequel about her later years.
She is barely 5 feet tall, somewhat fragile-looking - and intense. Her modest garden apartment in Alexandria is dominated by books, pictures of family and friends and meticulously organized file cabinets.
Of the last, a friend says, "Pauli has the most incredible files on everything and everyone. She has a very strong historical sense, a sense that everything she does is part of history. She sees herself as an instrument for achieving things. That sense of history is why she tapes meetings, saves things." (Murray's files on the founding of the National Organization of Women, in which she played a major role, are at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Radcliffe.)
This sense of history is reflected in an inoffensive sort of egotism. Murray says matter-of-factly, "I can act as an elder statesman. I've made my reputation. I don't have to watch what I say."
Not that speaking softly was ever much of a concern. It was, in fact, her outspokenness which led to a 20-year friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and to a job as a deputy attorney general to California in 1946.
Dr. Caroline Ware, a close friend and former professor, remembers how Murray, a Berkely law student, got that job. "It was after the war when the Japanese were coming back to their homes in California from the relocation camps and it looked like they wouldn't be able to reclaim their property. Pauli wrote the attorney general to protest and he wrote back citing all sorts of law, so she rallied the Berkeley law school faculty and made a huge fuss.
"When the attorney general came to swear in the group who'd passed the bar she went up and introduced herself and he said, "Miss Murray, I'd like you on my staff but the only position. I have is deputy attorney general: You'll report Monday."
Though she claims not to have thought a lot about changing careers, Murray does admit to having spent years coming to terms with her feelings about her ancestry. These feelings have clearly shaped her life and work.
"If you call me black, it's ridiculous physiologically, isn't it? I'm probably 5/8 white, 2/8 Negro - repeat American Negro - and 1/8 American Indian." She is also a seventh generation Episcopalian from a professional family. Her mother was a nurse, one of the first graduates of Hampton Institute, and her father was a secondary school principal.
Murray says she's traced her family back to 1809. "I began years before Alex Haley did. I'm always ahead of my time."
However, the acceptance of her multiple origins came only after spending several years in Ghana in the early '60s as a professor. "The difficulty," she says, "is coming to terms with a mixed ancestry in a racist culture."
Murray insists she's not racially unique. "I don't believe that 'You came over in chains so how can you feel American?' That's poppycock Thousands are just like me. In fact I probably feel more American than many whites. I just want this country to live up to its billing."
How has she dealt with her anger at the discrimination she's encountered, with the people who opposed the racial reconciliation she favors? "Writing is my catharsis," she says. "It saved my sanity. But you cannot sustain anger for years and years. It will kill you."
Another thing which has helped sustain her are friends. It was the death of a particularly close friend in 1973 that caused her to enter the priesthood. She says, "The experience made me sit down and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
"Being a priest is the hardest thing I've ever done. The first 48 hours were the most difficult of my life. I found myself on the receiving end of tremendous human problems I didn't know how to handle.
"I didn't go around saying, 'Come to Jesus' or anything like that," says Murray, apparently amused at the image. She says that sometimes her analytical training as a lawyer enabled her to sort out other people's problems. At other times she simply listened to people until they felt better.
Murray was married once, quite briefly, when she was very young.
It is the one subject about which she is clearly reticent. "I'm not at all sure marriage is for everyone," she begins carefully. "My marriage probably wouldn't have lasted, because I wasn't going to settle for a derivative status, begin Mrs. so-and-so. I missed companionship, but so do many wives."
As for traditional forms of relaxation, Murray seems singularly uninterested. She admits to taking long walks, but is disdainful of television. "Why should I look at canned life when I can look at real life?"
Sleeping is something to be done "hard and fast" and in moderation, no more than six hours per night. "Besides," she adds, "a lot of what you think is work I think is fun."
Perhaps. But even Pauli Murray must sometimes want to slow down and rest on her laurels. She looks momentarily indignant as she lights another cigarette. "I'd be dead if I did. We shouldn't stop growing 'til that last breath."