Historic Unsung Activist, Pauli Murray, Is Getting Their Roses In New Documentary From ‘RBG’ Filmmakers


October 23, 2021

They were truly ahead of their time!

A new documentary from RBG filmmakers explores the life of historic little-known activist Pauli Murray, Deadline reports. Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina, in 1910; growing up in the Jim Crow South to a family of Black, Native American, and European heritage. At a young age, Murray showed signs of extraordinary intellectual gifts and a strong rejection of conventional norms early, wearing pants instead of dresses. However, they often experienced racism from white society and prejudice from their Black community.

They became an activist, lawyer, and revolutionary thinker, laying the foundation for much of the racial and gender equality activism written about in the U.S. history books. A new documentary, My Name Is Pauli Murray, from the award-winning team behind RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, explores her life and pioneering contributions, introducing the world to someone who everyone should know of. 


Murray was named as the first Black deputy attorney general in California in 1946, just a year after passing the bar there. They organized sit-ins, participated in bus protests, and co-founded the National Organization for Women. Murray was also the first Black woman and non-binary person to be ordained an Episcopal priest. And in 2012, they were sainted.

“During most of Pauli’s lifetime, it was fairly difficult and radical to be fighting for racial equality. It was fairly difficult and radical to be fighting for gender equality, and Pauli was talking about not only those two individual things but actually was talking a lot about the confluence of both, about how being discriminated against as a Black person and [being seen] as a woman just compounded things,” Cohen told reporters. 

In 1940, nearly 15 years before Rosa Parks’ bus boycott, Murray and a friend refused to move to the back of an interstate bus crossing into Virginia. They were arrested and framed their defense around the legality of segregation in transportation as a whole. As a result of the judge and prosecution, Murray’s bus incident didn’t become a pivotal moment the way Parks’ protest would be. Still, it was a defining moment in Murray’s legacy. 


“I think each thing Pauli pushed for Pauli was expecting change to happen. Pauli had this idea of, ‘If I can just reasonably explain to you the errors in your thinking and give you a new way to think about it, that you will, of course, be on board with this,’” Talleah Bridges McMahon, notes producer and co-writer on the new documentary said. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press 

In 1943, Murray and fellow Howard University students staged a sit-in at a cafeteria in Washington, D.C. that served whites only. The demonstration was successful and spearheaded the integration of an entire area near Howard’s campus. 17 years later, the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, gaining national notoriety and sparking a series of similar protests. 

This trend of Murray’s activism and ideology serving as the genesis for many more notable historical moments would continue. While at Howard Law School, Murray wrote a paper outlining a new strategy to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. They argued that the idea of “separate but equal” was inherently unconstitutional and violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Since a black school was not truly equivalent to its white counterpart, they wrote that it sent a damaging message to Black people that they were inferior. 


“Other people had been beaten down by the idea of separate but equal. ‘Okay, that’s what we have to deal with here.’ Pauli’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. There is no equal when you’re separate. It is an optimistic point of view about challenging something that had been accepted for decades because of a decision in the 19th century,’” West explained. 

Murray recalls in the film the backlash they received after making the initial argument, saying, “My classmates laughed at me.” 

Her thinking ultimately influenced Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson, and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund members despite detractors. Murray’s beliefs ended up being the impetus for the group’s defense when they brought suit in Brown v. Board of Education. This 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision ended up abolishing segregation in public schools. 


“Pauli just happened to see that several years before some of the greatest thinkers of the time saw it. It was an extraordinarily deeply thought out idea, and it just ended up that Pauli was a hundred percent correct, not [only] that this is morally correct, but actually, it’s potentially a winning strategy, like there’s a legal argument to be made here,” Cohen said. 

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Murray continued their activism, tackling issues of sexism and gender within the Civil Rights Movement. They became one of the first to bring light to the intersectionality of race and gender discrimination for Black women. They coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe it and wrote extensively about the importance of courts realizing that women’s rights are human rights in their essay Jane Crow and the Law


Murray and the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, would grow to be friends, Ginsburg being the one to shine a light on Murray’s accomplishments to filmmakers. In 1965, years before RBG argued her first case on gender discrimination, Murray crafted the legal documents that led a U.S. District Court in Alabama to rule in favor of women serving on juries. 

“After so many losses and so many failures in a lifetime, this was my sweetest victory,” Murray says in the film. 

RBG credited Pauli’s work during her sex discrimination cases and advocated for her life’s work to be highlighted. Murray lived their life in praxis of their ideologies, eventually leaving law to study to become an Episcopal priest. They found love with co-worker Irene “Renee” Barlow, and moved through the world as a non-binary person. During the final years of their life, while battling pancreatic cancer, Murray wrote a memoir, Songs In a Weary Throat. It was posthumously published in 1987, two years after their death. 


“I think that’s why it’s a good time to be digging back into the messages that Pauli was spreading throughout life about how we can advance things as well as the very act of reconsidering our history with Pauli Murray in it. The whole question of who we revere, whose contributions, particularly intellectual contributions, have advanced the country – I mean Pauli Murray’s just a fantastic example of someone whose history hasn’t been explored enough and needs to be learned more,” Cohen said.  

My Name Is Pauli Murray is streaming on Amazon Prime now. 


Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime

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