Edgar Gardner Murphy (1869-1913) was an Episcopal priest who emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a crusader to improve child labor laws and public education. Although many of his reform efforts took place in Alabama, his work had far-reaching effects that drove social change throughout the United States. He was instrumental in founding many philanthropic organizations, including the Southern Education Board, and wrote numerous essays in support of his causes.
Murphy was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on August 31, 1869. When he was five his father, Samuel W. Murphy, deserted the family, and in 1874, his mother Janie Gardner Murphy, ill with tuberculosis, took him and his sister to San Antonio, Texas, where she established a successful boarding house. He befriended the rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, overcame an initial attack of rheumatic fever, and resolved to become an Episcopal priest. Graduating from high school at 16, he went on scholarship to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he boarded at the home and became a supporter of the Reverend William Porcher DuBose, one of the Episcopal Church's most outstanding theologians.
After graduating in 1889, Murphy studied for a year at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City and was ordained a deacon in 1890. He served churches in Texas at San Antonio and Laredo and was ordained to the priesthood in 1893. Murphy served as rector of St. Paul's Church in Chillicothe, Ohio, from 1893 to 1897 and of St. John's Church in Kingston, New York, from 1897 to 1898. In 1897 he published The Larger Life, which was a defense of the theology of the Episcopal Church. In November 1898 he accepted the rectorship of St. John's Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in response to a growing sense that his vocation was to focus on social reform in the South.
Although an avowed and vocal supporter of white supremacy, Murphy was horrified at the violence, especially lynchings, suffered by African Americans in the South and felt that the southern white upper classes should lead the masses to change their attitude. To aid in doing so, he formed the Southern Society to provide a forum for discussing racial reform. The society held its first annual Conference on Race Relations in Montgomery in 1900, and Murphy also promoted the society at Tuskegee Institute, where he won the admiration of school founder and president Booker T. Washington and a number of northern philanthropists who became his devoted supporters. Despite the worthy stated goals of the conference, most of the all-white attendees were on the extreme end of racial views. In a series of letters issued as pamphlets, he opposed the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901, then being called to disenfranchise blacks, codify segregation, and impose a literacy test for all voters.
While continuing his crusade for better treatment of African Americans, Murphy became a leading advocate of child-labor reform. In 1887 the Alabama legislature had established a pioneering law forbidding children under 14 from working. Alabama's textile industry expanded rapidly, however, and the law was repealed in 1894. By 1900 one-fourth of Alabama textile workers were under the age of 16 and usually working 12 or more hours a day. Murphy persuaded the Montgomery Ministerial Association to support a bill prohibiting employment for those under 12, which was defeated. Disgusted, he turned to his partners from the Conference on Race Relations in 1901 to form the Alabama Child Labor Committee, which worked to expose the horrors of child labor and lobby for laws to correct them. To aid in this mission, the committee published "An Appeal to the People and Press of New England." This work became the first of 10 pamphlets published by the committee, including "Child Labor in Alabama," some 28,000 of which were issued nationally and formed the basis for improved child legislation in many states.
In a 1903 address to the National Conference for Charities and Corrections in Atlanta, Georgia, Murphy spoke on child labor as a national problem and contended a national organization was needed to address it. In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee, which sought to arouse national opinion against child labor and obtain laws restricting it, was organized. The three original organizers were Murphy, Florence Kelley, secretary of the National Consumers League, and Felix Adler, a professor at Columbia University. Murphy served as its founding secretary and wrote much of the literature that was distributed nationally. In its first year, 17 states organized committees, and 12 states passed laws curbing child labor practices, and in 1907 the Alabama legislature passed one of the most effective of these. Murphy resigned from the National Child Labor Committee that same year when it endorsed the Beveridge Bill, which provided for federal regulation of child labor. He believed that this action would arouse southern fears of federal control and interfere with state regulations. The committee soon withdrew its endorsement, but Murphy did not return.
As Murphy wrestled with the problems of racism and child labor, he increasingly felt that a lack of education was the main factor in southern social and economic problems. Twenty percent of white children were completely illiterate in 1900, as they had been in 1850, and one-half of African Americans never attended any school. He was very pleased when some 36 educational leaders met at Capon Springs, West Virginia, in 1898 and founded the Conference for Christian Education in the South. After a second meeting in 1899, the organization became the Conference for Education in the South. Both organizations sought to investigate and expose substandard southern educational conditions and move state and local law-making bodies to correct the deficiencies. At the 1900 conference, the organization created an eight-person Southern Education Board to promote public education, and Murphy's friend Robert C. Ogden was elected president. Murphy was unable to attend the conference, however, due to illness.
In the fall of 1901 Ogden chose Murphy as the executive secretary of the board, and Murphy resigned his rectorship of St. John's Church. He was elected a member of the board in 1903. As secretary, Murphy traveled and wrote extensively, providing much of the nation's incentive for increasing educational support. He addressed many legislatures, edited the Proceedings, a journal of the annual meetings, and wrote numerous articles and pamphlets. He came to view southern educational problems as national ones and insisted that public schools educate both races. He was very pleased that the leaders of the board played a prominent role in the establishment of the General Education Board in 1902 because it made grants to schools. He asserted that outside aid was essential and advocated federal grants that the Southern Education Board opposed. In 1904 he published The Problems of the Present South, which contended that southern difficulties had to be resolved before a genuinely democratic society could develop. As a result of his efforts, two-thirds of Alabama's counties increased educational support, a prelude to even greater progress after Braxton Bragg Comer became governor in 1907.
Murphy was plagued by illness from 1907 until the end of his life. He resigned his positions with the Southern Education Board
in 1909 and published The Basis of Ascendancy, in which he argued that achievement was based on merit not on race. He died June 13, 1913, and was buried in Concord, Massachusetts.
Although he lived only 43 years, he had accomplished a remarkable amount of social change. Outlook, a renowned national magazine, wrote of him, "No man in this generation has succeeded so well in interpreting the South to
the rest of the country."
Bailey, Hugh C. Edgar Gardner Murphy, Gentle Progressive. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1968. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003
Murphy, Edgar Gardner. Alabama's First Question. Montgomery, 1904
———. The Case Against Child Labor: An Argument. Montgomery, 1902
Hugh C. Bailey
Valdosta State University
Published June 12, 2007
Last updated September 21, 2011