Frank Graham, Pauli Murray, and the Search for Racial Justice

The following is a guest blog post by William A. Link, author of Frank Porter Graham: Southern Liberal, Citizen of the World. Frank Porter Graham (1886–1972) was one of the most consequential white southerners of the twentieth century. Born in Fayetteville and raised in Charlotte, Graham became an active and popular student leader at the University of North Carolina. After earning a graduate degree from Columbia University and serving as a marine during World War I, he taught history at UNC, and in 1930, he became the university’s fifteenth president. 

Brimming with fresh insights, this definitive biography reveals how a personally modest public servant took his place on the national and world stage and, along the way, helped transform North Carolina.

In the late 1930s, the University of North Carolina, like all public institutions in the state, was required by law to remain racially segregated.  In a remarkable encounter with activist Pauli Murray, Frank Porter Graham’s difficult position on race became exposed. Although he personally believed in racial justice, Graham was obliged as UNC president to enforce the law and refuse Murray admission to the university.  Graham, then and later, maintained that he denied admission to Murray because he was following North Carolina law.  At the same time, restating his gradualist approach, Graham favored a “policy of openness and study” in which UNC took a few minimal steps that included sponsoring interracial gatherings and tolerating a few unsegregated meetings.  Like many southern liberals, Graham feared that further confrontation might compromise racial progress.  Eventually, UNC students would become exposed to different racial attitudes and learn “that we are all part of one great human family.”  Through education, “the minds of young people” could become opened “with regard to all races and all colors and all peoples.”

Pauli Murray

Born in Baltimore but growing up in Durham, Murray attended the all-black Hillside High School with her friend Thomas Hocutt.  After completing high school at age sixteen, she attended Hunter College in New York City, graduating in 1933.  Murray, who closely watched the anti-segregation fight, knew about the NAACP ‘s focus on higher education, and especially graduate education.  She was heartened, in particular, by Frank Graham’s rousing call for racial justice in his November 1938 Southern Conference on Human Welfare speech in Birmingham.  But Murray was also outraged that, when FDR visited UNC in early December, he urged students to take “affirmative action” to better the South—but said nothing about how black people were excluded from the university. 

In the fall of 1938, Murray sought to desegregate UNC’s graduate program in sociology and public welfare; no such programs existed at any all-black state college.  After Murray requested an application to UNC’s graduate program, she received a form that included new, typed-in spaces for race and religion.  On December 12, UNC sent Murray a letter of rejection, maintaining that “members of your race are not admitted to the university.”  She immediately appealed to Graham.  Declaring that the Supreme Court’s ruling had changed matters, she reminded him of the contradiction of protesting “the threats of Fascism and barbarism” abroad while suppressing civil rights at home.

For the most part, Pauli Murray thought little of Graham’s gradualism.  She agreed with Graham that “frank, open discussion” by whites and blacks would lead to progress.  But she maintained that this dialogue should be a “give-and-take process where prejudices are openly aired and accounted for, where correct interpretations are made and where enlightenment is gained in an atmosphere of mutual co-operation and respect.”  Incrementalism, Murray stated, would not bring quality education to African Americans.  For her, racial justice meant immediate integration.  What better place to test out matters than UNC, a university which had a national reputation as a center of liberal thought?

Graham occupied a tough position.  Although he did not disagree with Murray about the justice of her admission, he realized that his position obligated him to defend segregation.  His response, written more than two weeks later, expressed sympathy with Murray but repeated his position:  though North Carolina public policy restricted his freedom of action, he would pursue new resources for black colleges and would encourage legislative efforts to boost resources, making graduate education North Carolina’s “clear responsibility.”  The state constitution required segregation, but now the Supreme Court, in important cases of the late 1930s, mandated “substantially equal provision” for graduate and professional programs. 

Although he realized that Murray would see it as inadequate and sympathetic whites an unlikely fantasy, new legislation offered the only hope, Graham believed, for racial progress.  Murray responded once more.  The issues that they had addressed in their correspondence extended well beyond the “walls of the classroom,” she said, and needed further study.  Younger African Americans like Murray were unwilling to compromise “our ideals of human equality.”  The contradiction between constitutional requirements and North Carolina’s exclusion of African Americans remained.  This much was certain, she wrote:  the state constitution was inconsistent with the US Constitution.  Practices in North Carolina, sooner or later, would need to align with national standards.  At the same time, how to bring about this change and what the consequences would be was “a vital question which cannot be tampered with.”

William A. Link is Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida.