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The name Pauli Murray might not mean anything to you. That’s about to change.
The lawyer, Black activist, feminist, poet and priest is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name Is Pauli Murray” (in theaters now and streaming Friday on Amazon) – and for good reason.
Murray’s behind-the-scenes activism and legal expertise laid the groundwork for key civil-rights decisions that would change the face of U.S. history for women, Black people and the LGBTQ community. The trailblazer was the first Black person to earn Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School, the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and helped found the National Organization for Women.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote “Pauli Murray” on the front cover of her first women’s rights brief before the Supreme Court to give credit for the idea she’d be arguing. In 1965, Murray had written a law journal article positing that the 14th Amendment could be used to protect gender equality.
“It was really Ginsburg’s nod to Pauli’s very radical idea of using the 14th Amendment to win equal rights for women as well as for African Americans,” says Betsy West, the film’s co-director, along with Julie Cohen. The pair previously co-directed the 2018 Ginsburg documentary “RBG.”
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After learning more about Murray (who died in 1985 at age 74) through Ginsburg, West and Cohen were “flabbergasted” and said to themselves: “Do you think there’s the material for us to make a documentary?” West recalls.
Indeed, there was: West and Cohen mined Murray’s personal papers and writings, as well as more than 800 photos, 40 hours of audio-taped interviews and some video.
What they (and biographers) have found is someone light-years ahead of their time in myriad ways.
Murray was born in Baltimore but raised in segregated North Carolina after her mother suddenly died; her grandparents and aunts took her in, a child who grew well-versed in critical thinking on racial issues. This followed Murray through careers as a lawyer and professor, and inspired poetry.
Murray was arrested for sitting in the front section of a bus in 1940 – 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Murray also spearheaded an effort to desegregate restaurants in Washington, D.C., in 1943 – 17 years before the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in. Thurgood Marshall and his legal team used Murray’s college thesis strategy for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which deemed segregating public schools in the U.S. unconstitutional.
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Murray never backed down from a fight, making national headlines in 1939 after protesting rejection from the University of North Carolina because of race. Murray regularly reached out to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, criticizing him for not doing enough when it came to race relations, and also sent copies of those letters to his wife Eleanor. Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt even struck up a friendship.
Despite Murray not seeing eye to eye with the Black Panther movement later in her life, West says Murray would have supported the Black Lives Matter movement today. “This is what Pauli was fighting for all of Pauli’s life, when Pauli was writing to FDR, ‘Why aren’t you paying attention to the fact that our people are being lynched?’ That’s Black Lives Matter.”
On a personal level, Murray struggled privately with gender identity; it wasn’t mentioned in Murray’s published work, nor talked about with friends. Murray wrote to doctors seeking testosterone, taking a guess as to what might help navigate their gender identity.
“Everybody who knew Pauli, including family members and close friends, referred to Pauli with she/her pronouns, and most people didn’t really know that Pauli was probably gender nonbinary, perhaps trans,” West says. “We came to understand, though, that Pauli has become a beacon for the LGBTQ community, who deeply relate to Pauli’s story.”
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Before and leading up to Murray’s ordination to the priesthood, Murray was a part of a movement in the Episcopal Church that advocated for more progressive policies. Murray never wrote about the church’s position on homosexuality – at least not publicly.
“At one point Pauli was angry at a bishop in the Episcopal Church who had been saying homophobic things,” West says. “And Pauli wrote a letter to this guy, a very tough letter, basically saying, ‘What do you know about this? What do you know about transgender?’ This is in the mid-’70s. Wrote this very tough letter, but didn’t send it.”
So why haven’t we learned about Pauli Murray? Racism, sexism and transphobia, to start.
“History wasn’t ready for Pauli yet,” Cohen says. “It’s hard to get traction with an idea that people don’t understand yet.”
The filmmakers stress this movie isn’t intende the be-all-and-end-all history of Murray.
“Our goal isn’t that people should take the high school social-studies textbook and add in two pages about Pauli Murray and then move on,” Cohen says. “Pauli’s story is a very strong reminder about how we’re not always seeing the full scope of history and that maybe there’s a need for greater reconsideration of all kinds of historical movements.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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