Family members and friends paid tribute to a tenacious advocate for racial justice and equity during a celebration of the life of Rachel Murphy on Friday at the First Baptist Church.
Murphy, 81, who had been living with her daughter Denita in Wrentham, died on Dec. 3 after a period of declining health. She was the widow of Edward Murphy III, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Burial was in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
An early supporter of the Bedford schools’ affiliating with the METCO program, active in the former Human Relations Council of Bedford, and a founder of Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford, Murphy was remembered by the Rev. John Gibbons as someone who “spoke up. And when it was necessary, she put up a fuss.”
Gibbons, minister emeritus of the First Parish Church, said Rachel and Ed Murphy shared an “inclusive vision, which looked like the America we want America to be.”
He recalled that one of four African-American students who in 1960 challenged Jim Crow restrictions at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, Jibreel Khazan, was Ed’s fraternity brother. Khazan, Gibbons said, described Rachel Murphy as “a civil rights warrior.”
Her involvement continued over the decades, and she was a soloist at the first Bedford Embraces Diversity Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in 2017.
Crystal (Murphy) Wise said she called her mother by her first name, even as a child. “Rachel was an outspoken social activist,” she affirmed. “She was in the thick of things. She had a voice. Some liked it. Some did not. It could be fierce and it could be fun. That voice will be missed.
“A lot of this town’s current identity is due to her and her friends,” she said, adding that the interracial group was known as the “Women of Thunder. When they decided there was going to be a change, it happened.”
Dawn Murphy said both of her parents had “the spirit of community,” and she cited their role in creating fair and affordable housing opportunities. “Mom was passionate about everything she did,” she said. “She stood for the underdog, no matter what or who.”
She loved people,” Dawn Murphy said. “And you knew that she loved you.”
Her brother Edward IV agreed: “She loved everyone.”
The Murphys moved to Bedford in 1968. Rachel has described a new neighbor petitioning against the sale of the house. Denita “Dee” Murphy recounted her mother’s response: “She knocked on doors and said, ‘Tell me now if you don’t want my kids to play with yours.’”
After recovering from COVID-19, including three weeks in a respirator at Lahey Hospital in 2020, Rachel Murphy stayed with her children, but remained connected with the town. Dawn Murphy smiled when she repeated the last words she heard her mother speak: “Bedford Farms.”
Don Marshall, a founding member of the Bedford Arbor Resources Committee, credited Murphy with the existence of the group – even though she was never formally a member. More than two decades ago, he related, legendary local environmentalist Mimi Adler asked at a selectmen’s meeting why the town didn’t have a shade tree committee. “The selectmen invited a proposal. We all looked at each other until Rachel volunteered to draw up a work statement for such a committee. And she did.”
The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Chisholm, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, a retired Air Force major and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waltham, said, “I was always looking for what Rachel thought. Rachel was as sharp as anybody I ever met.”