Who is Pauli Murray? Don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with this extraordinary woman who became an advocate for civil rights, women’s rights, an author, lawyer, and priest. It feels like history has glossed over her significant contributions. “RGB” filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West shed light on the social justice warrior who was out fighting the good fight fifteen years before Rosa Parks took up the cause. The long-overdue documentary which also addresses LGBTQ rights covers an important part of America’s history, largely untold, regarding a pioneer ahead of her time.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg once called Pauli Murray a feisty woman. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will beg to differ. Born in 1910 and raised by grandparents and two loving aunts after her mother’s sudden death, Murray lived life on her own terms. She struggled with gender identity at an early age, ditching dresses for pants while identifying with boys, and received full support from her Aunt Pauline who struck a deal with her niece. You can wear pants all week but on Sundays, a dress is required for church. The support Murray received from her aunt gave her the confidence required for the many milestones she accomplished as an adult.
Rosa Parks made history in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. She’s in the history books and so is Martin Luther King Jr. who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott which spurred the U.S. Supreme Court to rule bus segregation unconstitutional. However, fifteen years earlier Pauli Murray was arrested and jailed for refusing to sit at the back of a Richmond, Virginia, bus. A year earlier she made headlines for protesting her rejection by the University of North Carolina for being black.
Two years after Murray enrolled in law school at Howard University, she played a pivotal role in desegregating several Washington D.C. restaurants. The year was 1940, two decades before the organized sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. The merits she received from her activism were shadowed by Murray’s professional accomplishments. She became California’s first black deputy attorney general, a noted author whose work was described by Thurgood Marshall as the “bible” for civil rights litigators, and she became the first African American woman in the U.S. to become an Episcopal priest.
Cohen and West’s documentary came to fruition after they discovered Murray’s name on a brief used by RGB to fight for gender equality before the Supreme Court. Like me and maybe you, the filmmakers weren’t familiar with Murray and soon they began researching the social justice advocate who would become the subject of their next film.
Using a plethora of memorabilia acquired from the 141-box collection on Pauli Murray stored at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, archived footage and interviews from the Lynne Conroy Collection, and five hours’ worth of newly discovered audiotapes recorded by Murray while she worked on the autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat,” the documentary is a definitive look at a monumental figure who gets to tell her own story 36 years after her death.
It can be mind-boggling at times how someone like Pauli Murray ended up as a footnote in history rather than a major player especially as the film points out how close she was to some of the most powerful figures in history. She became good friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and in 1962 JFK appointed her to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights as a part of his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Apart from the milestones Murray achieved, the documentary also touches on the personal struggles she had with gender identity. We now live in an era where members of LGTBQ+ communities express themselves freely, unlike Pauli Murray’s lifetime. I have used the pronoun she to describe Murray in this review but if alive today would she use it to describe herself? Probably not. Murray often said s/he identified as a man. Would the term transgender fit Murray in today’s age?
“My Name is Pauli Murray” covers the significant achievements of the social justice warrior in just over 90 minutes. It can be overwhelming but fascinating, nonetheless. It serves as a great introduction to an important chapter of our history, an advocate for justice who refused to be labeled, someone way ahead of her/his time.
Now showing at The Grand Berry Theater and Cinemark West Plano and XD