Activist, poet, lawyer, and Episcopal priest – Pauli Murray was a path-breaking individual so far ahead of their times that history does not yet reflect their contribution to race and gender equity. Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary My Name is Pauli Murray is a must-see, a revelatory portrait of a heroic person. Although in recent years scholarly articles and books have been written about Murray, I think the film will introduce Murray to a wider audience. As a student of literature, I knew of Pauli Murray as a poet, yet despite my interest in the civil rights and feminist movement in the US, I had no idea of their impact on historic legislation, such as Brown vs. the Board of Education, and I suspect I am not alone. In that sense, the film is also a reflection on the process of writing history, how entire chapters can, for whatever reason, simply disappear from the narrative and from our collective cultural memory.
Cohen and West are well known for their documentary RBG on the life and work of the Supreme Court Justice, and it was through their conversations with Ruth Bader Ginsburg that they became aware of Pauli Murray. Ginsburg credits Murray for the legal arguments that shaped her own thinking, and a brief interview with her appears in the current documentary. In 1966 Murray, together with Dorothy Kenyon wrote a brief for the ACLU, stating that discrimination based on gender violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Yet Murray’s perspective on the 14th amendment was formed and articulated long before that time. They first presented this legal argument in 1944, when still a law student!
One cannot help but wonder why Murray’s voice was not more prominent, why has she remained virtually unknown until the recent resurgence of interest in her life and work? I think the answer in part lies in the multiple kinds of discrimination Murray confronted throughout their lifetime, which are articulated in Cohen and West’s documentary. As a black individual growing up in an era of segregation, a woman born in 1910, and someone who grappled with issues of sexual preference and gender identity many years before our culture developed the understanding and vocabulary to express what it means to be genderqueer, trans, or non-binary, Murray must have constantly struggled against the cultural and political forces that would mute their voice, render them invisible. Yet another reason may be the diversity of Murray’s interests and activities, the narratives of history tend to prefer continuous work in a single field.
Fortunately, Pauli Murray was articulate and meticulous in documenting their own life, leaving an enormous archive of material to the Schlesinger Library, and the documentary relies on Murray’s voice and perspective through their writings and audio recordings. This is augmented by interviews with those who knew or researched Murray, such as their grandniece Karen Rouse-Ross, Patricia Bell-Scott who published a book in 2016 on Murray’s friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosalind Rosenberg who published a biography of Murray in 2017.
I hope that by now most people know that Rosa Parks was neither then only nor the first person to refuse to move to the back of the bus, but rather as secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P), was the one deemed most likely to represent well. In that same year, several months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to move, but because she was unwed and pregnant, the civil rights movement chose not to publicize her case. It is interesting to learn that in 1940 – 15 years earlier – Pauli Murray refused to sit at the back of the bus in Virginia and was arrested. Although the N.A.A.C.P. was interested, the case did not go farther because the segregation statute was not pursued in court; Murray and their friend were only convicted of disturbing the peace. Yet, as one learns in the documentary, that was not Murray’s only act of resistance to segregation. Incident after incident related in the documentary shows Murray’s intelligence, boldness, and determination. Reflecting on their childhood, Murray stated, “the point at which life became unbearable was in the contact with the white world.”
The term “intersectionality” had not yet been coined (1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw), yet Murray’s experiences reflect these issues. In their first two years of law school at Howard, Murray was the only woman in the class, and was literally not heard. Yet a paper they wrote as a law student in the 1940s, arguing that segregation itself is unconstitutional, was used by their former professors Spotswood Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, and helped win their case – Brown vs. the Board of Education, before the Supreme Court in 1954. Murray was not credited, nor even informed (until years later) that their seminar paper was instrumental in forming the legal argument.
Cohen and West’s film also discusses Murray’s private life, their loves, relationships and their struggle with gender identity. If Pauli Murray were alive today, I do not know what pronouns they would have chosen. As the film reveals, from an early age Murray felt distanced from their assigned gender, and this is documented in their letters to doctors, requesting hormonal treatment and expressing their belief that they may have been born with undescended testicles. It is for this reason that I have chosen to use they/their pronouns. Murray’s adventurous life had many chapters, their strong opinions didn’t always merge comfortably with their surroundings, yet they knew love, and left their mark on the world, changing it for the better.
“Surrender to none the fire of your soul” Pauli Murray
My Name is Pauli Murray – The film is screened in collaboration with the Human Rights Association on the occasion of the association’s 50th anniversary. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West will be guests of the Docaviv festival, and will present three of their films: Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, My Name is Pauli Murray, and Julia. Screening dates and times may be found on the Docaviv website.
United States/2021/91 min/English with Hebrew subtitles
Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West; Production: Talleah Bridges McMahon; Script: Talleah Bridges McMahon, Julie Cohen, Cinque Northern, Betsy West; Editing: Cinque Northern; Cinematography: Claudia Raschke; Music: Jongnic Bontemps