If there were any justice in this world, Pauli Murray would be a household name on par with Martin Luther King or Gloria Steinem or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was an activist and legal scholar whose arguments reinforced the work of the likes of Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall, and helped last year’s ACLU Supreme Court victory. She questioned the categories of race and gender long before those conversations reached mainstream, or even academic, discourse. She was a stranger and non-binary; She had an affair with women and sometimes she would dress and live like a man (more on that in a bit). She is a case study on how women of color, black women in particular, are erased from history books.
We wouldn’t be where we are when it comes to social justice if it weren’t for Pauli Murray. I didn’t realize that until I saw “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new documentary about the pioneer. Learning about Murray and his accomplishments is reason enough to watch the movie, but thankfully it’s also incredibly interesting. It’s the kind of document that makes you want to consume all of their research materials, I added. “Song in a Tired Throat” by Murray other “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” by Rosalind Rosenberg to my reading list as soon as the credits started rolling.
First things first: Murray definitely explored her gender identity and was irritated by gender norms. She preferred men’s fashion and hairstyles, and while riding the rails during the Great Depression in her early twenties, she passed as a youngster and went through Pete or The Dude. He was sexually attracted to women. He seemed to experience gender dysphoria; It is possible that, if he had lived in a different time, he would have identified as a trans man. The general consensus of scholars today is that Murray was not binary; some use their pronouns to describe it, others use them. For the purposes of this article, I will use it when referring to Murray, as most of those interviewed do in “My name is Pauli Murray.”
As the promotional materials in the document emphasize, Murray was a trailblazer: She was on the front lines of the fight for racial and gender justice before the more “famous” events that are part of high school curricula, such as Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat. on a segregated bus or Brown v. the Board of Education. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Murray lobbied the First Lady and her husband to do more to support the black community. The latter, while not a total success, was an early example of a black activist denouncing the blind spots of white liberals.
“My Name is Pauli Murray” is especially effective in highlighting the double bind of misogyny and white supremacy that Murray and many black women encountered and are in, which Murray dubbed “Jane Crow.” She was rejected for a Ph.D. in Chapel Hill because of her race and encountered sexism while attending law school at Howard, an HBCU. His legal arguments were used in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that struck down the “separate but equal” policy in public schools, but was not credited for contributions. Her scholarship also helped the RBG Supreme Court fight gender discrimination; Murray was credited, but it is Ginsburg who will always be associated with those progressive victories. No matter where she went or what she did, Murray felt held back because of her race, her gender, or both. So she dedicated her life to creating a fairer world through legal scholarship and activism, and in fact, she helped empower younger black generations, especially women.
The mere fact that we did not learn about Pauli Murray in school is proof of the system of exclusion that she worked to dismantle. It had an indelible impact on queer history, black history, women’s history, and American history. She deserves to be recognized for the hero that she is. With the release of “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” I hope it finally is.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” is out in theaters now and will be available on Amazon Prime Video on October 1.