The late African American civil rights activist, author and legal scholar Pauli Murray spent a lifetime taking on the system—fighting inequality, institutionalized racism and gender bias.
Just how successful Murray became in waging those battles emerges in the Amazon Studios documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and produced and co-written by Talleah Bridges McMahon.
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“I was really moved by really Pauli’s tenacity,” McMahon said during a panel discussion of the film at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary awards-season event. “[Pauli] had so many obstacles in the way, starting from being a young child who was going to a segregated school. And at a very young age Pauli understood that to be unjust. Pauli could see the difference between the schools for Black children and how few resources they had compared to the white students. And it wasn’t long before Pauli set out to do something about this.”
Murray later entered Howard Law School as the only woman in her class, encountering prejudice there based on gender—a phenomenon Murray called “Jane Crow.” But her intellectual prowess could not be denied; it was at Howard that Pauli conceived the legal strategy eventually used to dismantle the concept of “separate but equal” accommodations for Black and white Americans.
Murray also argued that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause could be used as the basis for combating sex discrimination, an insight that would deeply influence future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“What Pauli Murray had contributed to women’s rights law was pretty extraordinary, just on its own,” Cohen said. “And then it turns out it’s just the tip of the iceberg and someone that made contributions in so many areas of society that it’s pretty astounding that it happened and pretty astounding that this is someone that’s not in our school textbooks.”
Murray was gender non-conforming back before there was such a term.
“This was a private struggle for Pauli being a non-binary person, and we can imagine very painful,” West said. “Pauli’s letters and diaries reveal that Pauli was writing to doctors in the 1940s and saying, ‘I believe that I’m a man. Everyone thinks I’m a woman, but I’m a man.’ And you have to remember this is a time when we have no language for this. And Pauli was just really dismissed by the doctors. Pauli managed to overcome this private struggle and ultimately did have a very rewarding marriage of sorts with a partner for 14 years.”
Continued West: “I think that’s reflective of the fact that Pauli, despite all the hardships in life, always managed to push through, to find solutions, to find a way around, to come up with innovative legal ideas, to move on to the next thing, and to live life with a lot of exuberance.”
Check back Tuesday for the panel video.
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