Harriet Murphy applied to the University of Georgia’s law school 45 years ago, but was rejected because she is black. After being accepted into UT’s law program in 1966, she faced discrimination from fellow students and faculty.
“There were some professors who couldn’t even think about teaching black students,” Murphy, a retired Austin municipal judge, said Wednesday at an on-campus talk hosted by student organization Minority Women Pursuing Law.
Murphy graduated in 1969 and in 1973 became the first black female appointed to a regular judgeship in Texas. She later became a judge for the Austin Municipal Court, a position she held for 20 years. For her services to uphold justice and her community involvement, she was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame in 2010.
“All my life, I have been involved in improving whatever it is in my community that I can improve,” Murphy said.
Since her childhood, Murphy said she was known for her friendliness. She talked to everyone she met, something she continued to do when she began attending UT, where many people did not return her amity.
“I was speaking to everyone; people were not speaking back to me,” Murphy said.
Friends said she wouldn’t be able to graduate because she was never invited to study groups, something she said is very important to succeed in law school. Fortunately, she was able to find a partner for a moot court competition — a mock activity of court proceedings — where she said she did well. But she was criticized because she never made eye contact with the white judges, a habit she acquired from her stepfather.
“I was not accustomed to looking white people in the eye,” Murphy said.
Murphy grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and attended Booker T. High School with Martin Luther King Jr. At the talk she read an excerpt from an article she wrote for the school’s yearbook when she was 15. She said the article, which is about the continued mental enslavement of African-Americans in a segregated society, reveals the spirit of civil rights present in King even at such a young age.
Anne-Marie Huff, vice president of Minority Women Pursuing Law, said it is vital to bring people like Murphy on campuses so they can share their wealth of experience and knowledge with the student body.
“Being the only female black law student at UT is an important thing to convey to minority female students,” Huff said.
Government sophomore Monica Castellanos attended the event and said she is considering pursuing a law degree after she graduates. She said she could relate to Murphy’s experience because she is also a minority female in a society where the field of law is dominated by white men.
“It’s always going to be a bit different being a Hispanic woman,” Castellanos said. “You never know what kind of preconceived notions people are going to have about you [because] even in this day and age, not everyone is tolerant.”