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Book Club Kits: Song in a Weary Throat

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Book Summary


A prophetic memoir by the activist who “articulated the intellectual foundations” (The New Yorker) of the civil rights and women’s rights movements.


First published posthumously in 1987, Pauli Murray’s Song in a Weary Throat was critically lauded, winning the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award among other distinctions. Yet Murray’s name and extraordinary influence receded from view in the intervening years; now they are once again entering the public discourse. At last, with the republication of this “beautifully crafted” memoir, Song in a Weary Throat takes its rightful place among the great civil rights autobiographies of the twentieth century.

In a voice that is energetic, wry, and direct, Murray tells of a childhood dramatically altered by the sudden loss of her spirited, hard-working parents. Orphaned at age four, she was sent from Baltimore to segregated Durham, North Carolina, to live with her unflappable Aunt Pauline, who, while strict, was liberal-minded in accepting the tomboy Pauli as “my little boy-girl.” In fact, throughout her life, Murray would struggle with feelings of sexual “in-betweenness”—she tried unsuccessfully to get her doctors to give her testosterone—that today we would recognize as a transgendered identity.

We then follow Murray north at the age of seventeen to New York City’s Hunter College, to her embrace of Gandhi’s Satyagraha—nonviolent resistance—and south again, where she experienced Jim Crow firsthand. An early Freedom Rider, she was arrested in 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks’ disobedience, for sitting in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus. Murray’s activism led to relationships with Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt—who respectfully referred to Murray as a “firebrand”—and propelled her to a Howard University law degree and a lifelong fight against "Jane Crow" sexism. We also read Betty Friedan’s enthusiastic response to Murray’s call for an NAACP for Women—the origins of NOW. Murray sets these thrilling high-water marks against the backdrop of uncertain finances, chronic fatigue, and tragic losses both private and public, as Patricia Bell-Scott’s engaging introduction brings to life.

Now, more than thirty years after her death in 1985, Murray—poet, memoirist, lawyer, activist, and Episcopal priest—gains long-deserved recognition through a rediscovered memoir that serves as a “powerful witness” (Brittney Cooper) to a pivotal era in the American twentieth century.

Discussion Questions

  1. What aspects of the author’s story could you most relate to?
  2. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story?
  3. What do you think of the book’s title? How does it relate to the book’s contents? What other title might you choose?
  4. How did it impact you? Do you think you’ll remember it in a few months or years?
  5. What did you think of the author’s voice and style? Did the quality of the writing match the story?
  6. How honest do you think the author was being?
  7. What feeling did the book evoke for you?
  8. Are there any people in the book whose perspective you wanted?
  9. What gaps do you wish the author had filled in? Were there points where you thought they shared too much?
  10. Why do you think the author chose to tell the story?


Pauli Murray (1910-1985) lived one of the most remarkable lives of the twentieth century. S/he was the first Black person to earn a JSD (Doctor of the Science of Law) degree from Yale Law School, a founder of the National Organization for Women and the first Black person perceived as a woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. 

Pauli Murray’s legal arguments and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution were winning strategies for public school desegregation, women’s rights in the workplace, and an extension of rights to LGBTQ+ people based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

Pauli Murray crafted a broad vision of justice, equity, and human rights using words as her primary tool in the fight for liberation. Their vision for a just and equitable world is a beacon of hope during troubled times. Their social justice tactics, legal strategies, speeches, letters, books, sermons, and poetry are models for our ongoing activism aimed at dismantling the oppression s/he faced and we continue to face because of white supremacy.

Pauli Murray died of cancer in Pittsburg on July 1, 1985. Their autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, was published posthumously in 1987.


Murray’s life, her work, and her writings can serve as a model for a new understanding of the pursuit of social justice.... It is past time for Pauli Murray to become a household name.—Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Review of Books

Americans are finally waking up to realize just how visionary Pauli Murray really is. This long-awaited republication of Song in a Weary Throat bears witness to her crowning achievements. —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of PBS’s Finding Your Roots and co-editor of The Annotated African American Folktales

The architect of the legal argument against segregation and a pioneer in the fight against gender discrimination, Murray proved as fearless as she was brilliant. The intensity and urgency of her resolve light up every page of this gripping memoir, a chronicle of the life of an eminent American who made great changes come a great deal faster.—Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Pauli Murray’s lyrical autobiography eloquently chronicles the decades-long African American freedom struggle. A one-woman civil rights movement…. Reading her autobiography will restore your faith in the audacity of hope.—Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, author of Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950

Murray’s role in history is important for a number of reasons, especially because their gender and sexuality placed them at a complex set of intersections situated outside the normative standards of both the white women–led rights movement and the black church–led freedom struggle.... Murray’s gender-nonconforming (GNC) body and experiences makes their contributions to the work of freedom and liberation of black people that much more critical. Sadly, these experiences are also the likely cause of Murray’s erasure from so much of history.—Jenn M. Jackson, Teen Vogue

“This book is a gift, a testimony and powerful witness, of one of the 20th century’s greatest freedom fighters. Pauli Murray was a woman before her time, one whose vision of a world not divided by polarizing ideas of race or gender, is a vision we are all still striving to create. The profound sense of hope and indomitable fighting spirit that inspired Murray to challenge injustice wherever she encountered it is the very hope that our weary throats and hearts and minds need in this moment.”—Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage and Beyond Respectability, and cofounder of Crunk Feminist Collective

The intensity and urgency of Murray’s resolve light up every page of this gripping memoir.—Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States