WASHINGTON – No one could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the black, queer and gender nonconforming civil rights pioneer who lived from 1910 to 1985.
Few have done as much to make the world fairer than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ + people from on-site dismissal. work because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet a lot of people don’t know who Murray was.
“My Name is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary airing in select theaters and airing on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The gripping film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG,” the popular documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“RBG” is a good documentary. Still, the 131-minute “My Name is Pauli Murray” is even better.
Conveying the complexity of Murray’s life in such a short document would bring down many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.
Use of recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of everything from Murray with one of his dogs in Harlem in the 1930s, plus interviews with Murray’s family and biographers, the film takes you into Murray’s world.
To say that Murray was a Renaissance woman is not trivial. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist and educator. This is just the tip of the iceberg!
For decades Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were his writing buddies. Murray and Baldwin were the first black writers to be invited to the prestigious MacDowell Writers Colony.
In his sixties, Murray left her teaching position at Brandeis University to attend seminary. She became the first black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.
It doesn’t stop there! An article Murray wrote while a student at Howard Law School was a key part of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy to reverse racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited Murray when she argued against gender discrimination in the Supreme Court.
While she was alive, Murray was locked in for much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But, due to the times she lived in, Murray couldn’t be open about their relationship.
Murray sensed that she was mismatched, like a man in a woman’s body. This, too, Murray kept a secret.
In “My name is Pauli Murray” Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and she”. A non-binary activist calls Murray “they”.
Murray is having a well-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time that a Yale college had been named after a person of color or (openly) LGBTQ + person. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to earn a doctorate in forensic science from Yale.
In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Home Office, designated Murray’s family home in Durham, North Carolina, as a National Historic Landmark.
Watching “My name is Pauli Murray” you are blown away by Murray’s resilience and accomplishments. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested against racial segregation on buses.
“I lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray says.
It is difficult to humanize an icon. But, the filmmakers don’t put Murray on Mount Olympus.
Even as a child, we learn, Murray wanted to wear pants. It was fine during the week, her aunt Pauline said, but Murray is expected to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Although not many understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my boy”.
Murray and Barlow have never lived together. Yet you get a sense of their privacy in the letters they exchanged. They were called “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters from the Peanuts comics) and wrote that they wanted to “share” while listening to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and the New York Times puzzle.
“My name is Pauli Murray” will let you talk about Murray and how to honor his legacy. It would have made Murray happy.