Pauli Murray Should Be a Household Name. A New Film Shows Why.

When the lawyer, activist, author and educator Pauli Murray died in 1985 at the age of 75, no obituary or commemoration could contain all of her pathbreaking accomplishments. A radical and brilliant legal strategist, Murray was named a deputy attorney general in California — the first Black person in that office — in 1946, just a year after passing the bar there. Murray was an organizer of sit-ins and participated in bus protests as far back as the 1940s, and co-founded the National Organization for Women. Murray was also the first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. In 2012, she was sainted.

Murray has been saluted in legal, academic and gender-studies circles, and in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But her overarching impact on American life in the 20th and now 21st centuries has not been broadly acknowledged: the thinking and writing that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education; the consideration of intersectionality (she helped popularize the term “Jane Crow”); the enviable social circle, as she was a buddy of Langston Hughes and a pen pal of Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked on her first memoir alongside James Baldwin at the MacDowell Colony in the first year it allowed Black artists.

Murray was devoted to feminism and the rights of women even as, it turned out, she privately battled lifelong gender identity issues. She should be a household name on par with Gloria Steinem or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both of whom cited her work often. Instead Murray is an insider’s civil rights icon.

Now a documentary, “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” aims to introduce Murray to the masses. Made by the same Academy Award-nominated filmmakers behind the surprise hit “RBG,” it uses Murray’s own voice and words as narration, drawn from interviews, oral histories and the prolific writing — books, poems and a collection of argumentative, impassioned and romantic letters — that Murray meticulously filed away with an eye toward her legacy. And the film arrives at a moment when the tenacious activism of people of color, especially women, is being re-contextualized and newly acknowledged, at the same time that many of the battles they fought are still raging.

This is especially true for Murray, whose views on gender, race, sexuality and equality were generations ahead of their time. In 2020, the A.C.L.U. won an anti-discrimination case that built on Murray’s work. “She challenged racism, sexism, heterocentricism, colorism and elitism,” Anita Hill, the lawyer and educator, wrote in an email. “It has taken me 20 years to discover the extraordinary breadth of her contributions to law and social justice.”

When the directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen decided to pursue a documentary about Murray, the first interview they booked, in 2018, was with Ginsburg, whose work had introduced them to the weight of Murray’s achievements. In the film, Ginsburg smilingly calls Murray “feisty.” Roosevelt, Murray’s longtime friend, chose “firebrand.” The more the filmmakers learned, the more astounded they were that Murray was not better known.

“We just thought, why didn’t anybody teach us about this person?” West said.

“We really think of this documentary as the beginning of the conversation,” Cohen added. “This is a starting point, because there’s so much to say.”

In some ways, the central tension of Murray’s life was the degree to which Murray’s ideas were dismissed, and her unyielding belief that they would eventually be accepted. Murray’s law school thesis strikingly argued against “separate but equal.” A decade later, Thurgood Marshall borrowed from its framework to win Brown v. Board before the Supreme Court. “What I say very often,” Murray quips in the film, under a broad, impish smile, “is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”

Though she lived humbly, Murray, who called her preferred method of persuasion “confrontation by typewriter,” was long aware of her own exceptionalism. She published a memoir in 1956 about her family’s complicated, multiracial history, and held teaching positions across the country and in Ghana, advancing views on how to attain equity. But each step toward a broader audience, a bigger platform, was hard-won. Like Hill, Murray was a professor at Brandeis University — but Murray had to fight for tenure, the documentary shows, even though she was the first Black person to receive Yale Law School’s most advanced degree, doctor of juridical science.

In 2017, Yale named a residence hall after Murray, but Hill noted that when she herself was at Yale Law in the late 1970s, she couldn’t recall Murray’s name even being mentioned. “I chalk the near erasure of her contributions as an activist, author, scholar — of law, African studies, African American studies, and gender studies — to sexism and racism combined and separately,” Hill said.

Murray was a nomad. She went “wherever her cause took her,” said Karen Rouse Ross, her great-niece. After college, Murray, who often dressed androgynously, hopped trains, then joined the labor movement. Settling into life as an itinerant activist and lawyer, Murray transported enough books and papers to fill floor-to-ceiling shelves and a wall of filing cabinets. In her 70s, living in an apartment in Baltimore, Murray kept up the habit of typing away on her Remington into the wee hours, books piled on the floor. “She had a white coffee mug like you would get at a diner somewhere, constantly filled with black coffee, and she smoked unfiltered cigarettes,” Ross said. “That’s who she was, all night long.” When Murray’s papers were donated to Harvard, they filled 141 boxes.

Talleah Bridges McMahon, a producer of the film, was shocked when she started sorting through them. Instead of the drafts of speeches and other public-facing documents she thought she’d find, there was a trove of private correspondence between Murray and her inner circle, including doctors. “There were complete conversations,” she said, and decades of journals. Some had pages ripped out or words blacked out. “These are curated records,” McMahon said. “The more I saw that, the more I understood that everything we were seeing is what Pauli wanted people to see.”

That included Murray’s nearly lifelong sense of being misgendered. Among the letters were those to doctors imploring them for help. “My life is unbearable in its present form,” she wrote, according to the film. Murray sought out hormone treatment, which was denied, and even underwent exploratory surgery because she was convinced (wrongly) that she had undescended testes.

But this anguish was largely hidden. Murray’s romantic life also existed almost entirely behind closed doors; even some family members were not aware of her relationships. She never lived with her longtime partner, Irene Barlow, whom she met at a law firm where both worked. But the letters show a deep connection and a sense of playfulness around their secret love: They used code names, and Barlow sometimes signed her missives “007,” with the 0s drawn as eyeglasses.

As private as Murray was, “there was a certain faith or trust that we would eventually understand what was happening,” McMahon said.

Some activists in the film use “they” pronouns for Murray because even though that language wasn’t in use then, it opens up possibilities for Murray’s identity and preferences now. “I do think it’s important to not confine Pauli to the time Pauli was living,” McMahon said.

Family members, including Ross, the executor of Murray’s estate and founder of the Pauli Murray Foundation, use she/her pronouns for their relative; Murray used them, too. Born in 1910 as Anna Pauline, Murray later chose the neutral nickname Pauli — another moniker the filmmakers rely on. In this article, The New York Times is using Murray’s name as much as possible, and adhering to the family’s choice for pronouns.

Some scholars feel that it was Murray’s sense of in-betweenness that shaped her then-radical thinking about the intersection of race, gender and more. It helped ignite the realization that race and gender norms are socially constructed, and “made her increasingly critical of boundaries,” as one biographer, Rosalind Rosenberg, says in the film.

For Murray, there was an urgent need to be understood in all she encompassed. “Most of her life was, ‘You will see me, you will hear me!’” Ross says in the film. Some of that fervor, Ross added in an interview, shifted after Murray made the surprise decision, late in life, to become an Episcopalian priest. Murray’s focus moved from agitating for change, to listening for healing.

But Murray remained committed to creating equality: Preaching in Baltimore, she had a service full of girls as acolytes, which was not typical then. She would say to them, “Ladies, are we living up to our full potential?” her niece recalled. “That was very important to her, that she inspired other women to be all that they could be.”

For the filmmakers and others who followed in Murray’s footsteps, that legacy shone brightly. “I think of her courage in the face of disappointments,” Hill said, quoting a line from Murray’s poem “Dark Testament”: “Hope is a song in a weary throat.”

“Even though Murray knew that the odds were often against her success, she kept fighting for what she believed was right,” Hill continued. “It takes a lot of courage to be hopeful.”

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