The Hon. Harriet Murphy, 1927-2024

A portrait of Judge Harriet Murphy in her judicial robes, standing in the law school courtroom.
The Hon. Harriet Murphy, photographed by Brian Birzer

The Hon. Harriet Murphy ’69, a civil rights pioneer and the first African American woman appointed to a permanent judgeship in Texas, passed away on January 17 after a long illness. She was 96.

Murphy, whose portrait hangs on the law school wall, was deeply involved in the life of the law school and the university over the course many decades. She had close relationships with the law school deans Bill Powers, Larry Sager, and Ward Farnsworth, and worked with all of them on initiatives that would advance the cause of equality and access for all to a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

“Judge Murphy lived a life totally dedicated to service and improving the lives of so many people,” said Arleas Upton Kea ’82, a former president of the law school’s Alumni Association and a current member of the Law School Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “She was an amazing trailblazer, an advocate for justice and equality, and a champion for social change.”

Kea knew Murphy well, going back many years. “She was a terrific role model, mentor, and advisor to me as I entered the law school,” added Kea. “And then when I served as the first African American president of the school’s Alumni Association. Harriett leaves a legacy that cannot be forgotten.”

Ward Farnsworth, who served as dean for the decade from 2012 to 2022, commissioned the portrait of Murphy that hangs outside the Beck Classroom on the law school’s main floor. “Judge Murphy was a force of nature,” reflected Farnsworth. “She was utterly devoted to the success of students and the advancement of civil rights in the university and beyond.”

One of Murphy’s signature accomplishments was spurring the creation in 2011, in collaboration first with Powers and then Sager, of an award to honor the memory of Virgil C. Lott ’53, the law school’s first African American graduate. That honor—the Virgil C. Lott Medal—is presented to law school graduates who “like its namesake, serve the interests of our society with integrity and who, by word and deed, reflect our better selves.”

Luminaries who have received the medal have included the Hon. Wallace Jefferson ’88, the Hon. Ron Kirk ’79, and Myra McDaniel ’75. The most recent honoree was DeMetris Sampson ’80, who was honored in 2023.

She was born Harriet Louise Mitchell in Georgia in 1927 and grew up in Atlanta. There, she was a high school classmate and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.—“we all called him M.L.,” she used to love to say—and was closely connected to the nascent American Civil Rights movement happening there. She attended Spelman College, earning her Bachelor of Arts, and then received a Master’s from Clark-Atlanta University.

“It was not unusual for those that came through Atlanta to became leaders – not only political leaders but just leaders,” she once said. “It was a tremendous environment to grow up in. I think that I’m fortunate to have grown up in that environment, which has always made me very candid and very outspoken and believe in my opinions.”

Though offered a chance to work on civil rights issues in Atlanta with King and others at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she felt her calling was in the law. She entered Texas Law in 1966, the only Black student in her class, a story told in her memoir, “There All the Honor Lies,” published by the University of Texas Press in 2018.

“Lo and behold I was in for a shock,” Murphy once told an interviewer, explaining that upon her arrival she discovered not only were there no other women in her small summer class, but there was only one other African-American student in the law school – who promptly graduated. “I really didn’t remember facing the serious problems of segregation that I had faced in Atlanta,” Murphy said of her first few years in Austin. She said never had any trouble with discriminatory professors in the law school.

But she did recall “encountering a great deal of negativity from members of the African American community in Austin… who said I would never be allowed to graduate from The University of Texas because I was black, or that I would never be allowed to pass the bar.”

This history was recounted by Michael Barnes in an Austin American-Statesman feature on Judge Murphy published on Jan. 19. Wrote Barnes:

Murphy was advised repeatedly that she would not be allowed to graduate from UT, but she did so easily. She was told the same regarding the bar exam.

“They really believed that,” Murphy told the interviewer. “They knew people, they knew Blacks who had started out here and did not finish, and they knew Blacks who had taken the bar and did not pass. I was getting no encouragement there, so I guess what kept me going was the environment that I grew up in, and I knew that one day things would be different.”

Murphy had no trouble graduating, and no trouble passing the bar, and put her law degree to immediate use.

Murphy earned a permanent place in the history books in 1973, when she became the first African American woman to be officially appointed to a judgeship in the state of Texas. She was a judge on the City of Austin Municipal Court for twenty years, a term of service which included presiding judge. Prior to joining the municipal court, Murphy practiced law part time for eight years and was head of the government department of Huston-Tillotson College in Austin for five years.

Murphy was the recipient of countless honors. She was inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of fame in 2010, “in recognition of her community involvement and of the significant contributions she has made to the cause of justice during her life in the law.”

The National Bar had earlier recognized Murphy with the Raymond Pace Alexander Award in 2005 and the Gertrude E. Rush Award in 2003.

Murphy received one of the inaugural Austin Black Lawyers Association’s Legacy Awards, also in 2010, and received additional awards from The University of Texas, including the first Thurgood Marshall Legal Society award and the Yellow Rose of Texas Award.

Over the course of her long and distinguished career, Murphy served as counselor to legislators, politicians, and university presidents. She was a founding member of the Austin Black Lawyers Association, the Travis County Women Lawyers Association, and the Austin Urban League. She has served on the Mayor’s Task Force on the Homeless and the Travis County Public Defenders Task Force. She served for two years on the United States State Department Council on African Affairs, during which time she participated in a data-finding commission to South Africa. Later, she served on the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College and the Black Alumni Steering Committee of the Texas Exes.

There will be two days of services for Judge Murphy, on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27. There will be a viewing and visitation on Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Cook Walden Funeral Home, at 6100 North Lamar Blvd., followed by a wake from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A funeral will be held the next day, Saturday, at 11 a.m., at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 1010 East 10th Street, in Austin.

The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, gifts be made to the Judge Harriet Murphy Memorial Scholarship in Law.

Category: Alumni News