Who was Pauli Murray? Documentary shines a light on ‘multifaceted’ pioneer’s legacy

·6 min read

Pauli Murray was an attorney, activist, priest and poet who made a significant impact in civil rights, women’s and LGBTQ+ movements.

But her influence isn’t widely known, with a 2017 New Yorker article proclaiming: “She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle—and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?”

That’s about to change in the new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” which tells the story of the pioneer who grew up in Durham and contributed to the growth of the two pivotal movements.

The film shows how Murray helped shape the landmark litigation around race and gender equity and whose lives was filled with firsts.

Murray was also the first person of color to receive a doctorate of science of law at Yale Law; joined James Baldwin as one of the first Black writers at the prestigious MacDowell Colony; cofounded the National Organization of Women; and became the first Black female Episcopal priest in the United States.

Murray died of pancreatic cancer in Pittsburgh on July 1, 1985.

The film will be released in theaters Sept. 17 and will then be streamed on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 1.

The documentary comes from co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who are behind the award-winning “RBG” documentary.

Here’s what to know about Pauli Murray and the film.

Who is Pauli Murray?

Murray was born in Baltimore, Md. But after becoming an orphan at a young age, Murray went to live with her aunt and namesake, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, and her grandparents, Robert George and Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, in Durham, North Carolina.

After graduating from Hillside High School in 1926, Murray moved to New York City and attended Hunter College. Upon graduating, Murray quickly became involved in the civil rights movement.

In 1938, she applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to enroll in a Ph.D. program. But as an African American woman, the segregated college rejected her.

In 1941, she went to law school at Howard University and was the only woman in her class.

She generated national attention for her activism for social justice issues. At one point, she corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, then first lady. They became friends.

In 1944, Murray graduated at the top of Howard’s law school class. Murray faced a great deal of discrimination throughout her life.

But Murray used her voice and writings to combat the discrimination, which she referred to as “Jane Crow,” said Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham.

Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.”
Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.”

What was Pauli Murray’s role in the civil rights movement?

In the early 1960s, Murray was acutely aware of and often criticized the way that men dominated the leadership of the civil rights movement.

Murray’s final law school paper at Howard outlined the idea for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that overturned segregation in schools.

However, Murray’s impact did not stop there. In the 1970s, when the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the 14th Amendment to argue against sex discrimination in Reed v. Reed, she cited Murray as inspiration.

Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.”
Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.”

What sources did filmmakers use for the documentary?

In an interview with The News & Observer, West said they relied on Murray’s archive at Harvard.

“Pauli saved 141 boxes of material that included letters, diaries, all kinds of papers, and photographs,” West said.

“Also, luckily, for us documentarians, there were some audio cassettes ,and eventually we tracked down some video as well. So we now have Pauli to thank for our ability to tell her story. It’s as if Pauli is speaking to us, you know, from this archive through the decades.”

But there were challenges to telling Murray’s story, Cohen told The N&O, partially because Murray played a lot of roles in history.

“Pauli’s life was multifaceted and complex,” Cohen said. “And obviously, there were so many elements and so many accomplishments that we couldn’t get into. On top of that, there was the challenge of her having been deceased for quite some time.”

Filmmakers relied on people who knew Murray to “bring this story alive,” Cohen said.

“And just trying to grapple with all these lived experiences as a Black Southern, gender non-conforming person living in a very different era from our own, we tried to do some justice to the breadth and depth of Pauli’s experience and it was an ongoing concern and challenge.”

The historic Pauli Murray House at 906 Carroll St. in Durham, N.C., photographed in 2017.
The historic Pauli Murray House at 906 Carroll St. in Durham, N.C., photographed in 2017.

How is North Carolina featured in the film?

Filmmakers came to Durham twice, but said they didn’t spend as much time in the state as they would have liked. Instead, they turned to the archive as a primary source of Murray’s life.

They did spend time in Murray’s childhood home in Durham, which is on Carroll Street in Durham. The home houses the Pauli Murray Center and was named a National Treasure in 2015 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2016, the National Park Service designated it as a National Historic Landmark. (The center will open to the public for the first time next year, Lau said.)

“A lot of that material from Pauli’s time in North Carolina came from back and forth between her and Aunt Pauline, so, North Carolina obviously played a huge role in Pauli’s life,” West said.

The movie also was filmed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Pauli Murray collection is located and where they interviewed Pauli’s niece Karen Rouse Ross. They went to Washington, DC, to interview Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Judge Inez Smith Reid and Ginsburg.

And there were visits to the Pauli Murray College in New Haven, Conn., and interviews with Murray’s former students.

Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.” She is pictured here in 1979.
Pauli Murray, an attorney, activist, priest and poet who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, is the focus of a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray.” She is pictured here in 1979.

What would Pauli Murray think about today’s political climate?

The filmmakers reflected on what Murray would think about the strides that have been made in the causes she believed in the most, and the challenges that continue.

“Pauli talked about living to see all these lost causes found,” West said. “Some of those causes have continued to grow and some of them are being challenged right now, like reproductive rights and voting rights. These are some areas where there may be some steps taken backwards and I can’t imagine that Pauli would be happy about that.”

But, West notes, there have significant changes for the LGBTQ community — “in a way that Pauli just didn’t experience in their lifetime.”

Murray, a non-binary Black woman, lived during a time where gay, lesbian and transgender people had to be “pretty circumspect” about gender identity “because it was dangerous, there was no language and no community,” West said.

“And so, I think Pauli might be happy to see how that has grown,” West said. “But, of course, not happy to see the attack on trans rights that has been going on around the country in this complicated landscape. I would hope that Pauli might have some out-of-the-box ideas about how to help us get through this difficult period.”

Why is learning about Pauli Murray important to filmmakers?

“We hope this will help people learn about Pauli’s essential place in 20th century American history,” Cohen said. “And we also hope it’s going to be a way for people to learn more about Pauli. You know, this is not the definitive Pauli Murray story and what we hope would be one of many.

“We also hope it helps people rethink how we think about history and what you might have learned in your elementary school or high school textbooks that didn’t necessarily tell you about all the important people that we should know about.”

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