Written by Talitha Arnold
How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? - Psalm 137:4
"By the waters of Babylon," the Psalmist remembers, the exiled Israelites hung up their harps. In that strange and hard land, they'd lost hope and lost their voice. "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" they lamented. But the Psalmist reminded them how to sing, even in exile.
"Hope is a song in a weary throat," proclaimed the Rev. Pauli Murray in her 1970 poem Dark Testament. A Civil Rights activist, feminist, attorney, author, and the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, Rev. Murray knew first-hand such weariness. The granddaughter of slaves, she was born in 1910. By the time Murray was five, her mother had died and her father was committed to a segregated mental hospital due to a mental illness caused by typhoid. He was later killed by a white guard.
Murray was rejected by the University of North Carolina because of her race and by Harvard Law School because of her gender. Yet Murray persevered, graduating from Howard University and later Yale. A fierce activist who refused to obey Jim Crow laws, Murray was also a brilliant legal writer. Thurgood Marshall called her 1951 treatise, States' Laws on Race and Color, "the Bible of the Civil Rights movement."
Murray wanted to be remembered most for essays, Negroes are Fed Up (1943), and her poetry. With her poems, she offered her people what the ancient Psalmist gave the exiles in Babylon—a song for an often strange and hard land. Dark Testament concludes:
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it . . .
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl's heart tohear it.
In our land wearied by racism and fear, we all need Pauli Murray's song—and the courage to sing it. .
Thank you, God, for Pauli Murray's witness, in her time and in ours.