In My Name is Pauli Murray, an Unsung Hero Gets Their Roses
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In My Name is Pauli Murray, an Unsung Hero Gets Their Roses

The civil rights trailblazer gets some much-deserved attention in a documentary streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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Pauli Murray. Photo courtesy Amazon Studios.

A new documentary about an unsung maverick civil rights activist and scholar begins at the end: her death in 1985.

Near the opening of the film My Name Is Pauli Murray, Karen Rouse Ross receives word that her great aunt, Pauli Murray, is near death from pancreatic cancer. A couple of hours later, Murray dies, and Rouse Ross, as the executor of her estate, eventually goes through her papers. In the process, she learns the details of a remarkable life that she’d never known.


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“She saved everything,” Rouse Ross explains in the opening scenes of My Name Is Pauli Murray, a 91-minute biographical documentary to be streamed on Amazon Prime Video starting Oct. 1. “Aunt Pauli did not share a lot about her life with me,” Rouse Ross continues. “I knew she was a priest. I knew she had been a lawyer. But she never ever shared any of her accomplishments.”

The Amazon Studios film is directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen — creators of RBG, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My Name Is Pauli Murray received a positive reception at the Sundance Festival in January. A limited theatrical release began Sept. 17 from Amazon Studios.

In the course of this well-researched ride through Murray’s life, the viewer sees what Murray described as her “struggle” between standards of excellence in a world in which Blacks were inferior to whites and women were inferior to men. The viewer gets to know some of the nooks and crannies of the complicated existence of Murray — a scholar with an impish smile who was anything but impish.
 


“How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is just one that we never learned?” asks Prof. Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University.


 
In fact, we learn, Murray’s work was the backbone of many of the advances society enjoys today, including the ACLU’s 2020 Supreme Court victory declaring that LGBTQ discrimination violates federal workplace laws and the high court’s 1971 ruling that women can be victims of sex discrimination (including Ginsburg’s related brief, which leaned heavily on Murray’s work). Murray came out of a segregated South to earn law degrees from Howard University; the University of California, Berkeley; and Yale University. She taught law in Ghana and, along with the late James Baldwin, was one of the first Black Americans to attend the prestigious MacDowell artists residency program in New Hampshire. Murray helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and enjoyed friendships with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.). She was a writer and a poet, publishing two biographies, and was the first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.

“How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is just one that we never learned?” asks Prof. Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University, who teaches about Black female intellectuals.

Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910 but grew up in Durham, North Carolina. After the double tragedy of her mother’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage and her father’s commitment to a mental hospital, she was raised by her Aunt Pauline, who loved her even after it was clear she was attracted to women.

My Name Is Pauli Murray paints a vivid picture of Murray through interviews with a biographer, friends, activists and scholars. Thanks to hundreds of well-preserved images and videos, as well as crystal-clear audio recordings, the audience gets to know Murray, a trailblazer born perhaps 100 years too early.

Murray takes us back to a day in 1940, when she was traveling from her home in New York to Durham to visit family. Black passengers were expected to move to the back of the bus when it reached Virginia, but Murray refused to move to the broken seats in the back because her traveling companion was ill. They were arrested and taken to jail. This was 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
 


During the Great Depression, Murray sought work by traveling the country on freight trains, dressing like a male in order to protect herself as a woman traveling alone.


 
“As so often happened in those early days, an incident would arise that there was just nothing you could do but fight back,” Murray says in the film. This philosophy was the theme of Murray’s life, even when she was trying to figure out her own existence.

As a young woman, Murray struggled to understand why she rebuffed hetereosexuality. After she graduated from Hunter College in 1933, she walked right into the Great Depression. Like many others, she could not find work. She sought it by traveling the country on freight trains, dressing like a male, she said, in order to protect herself as a woman traveling alone.

During this time, Murray experimented with gender neutrality, sometimes even calling herself “the dude” or “Pete.” She faced opposition as a Black American woman whose friends and associates came to understand they should not identify her with gender-specific pronouns. She befriended Peggy Holmes, a white daughter of a conservative banker. When Murray failed to convince Holmes to see her as a male partner, she devolved into one of many breakdowns and hospitalizations over the course of her life.

In her private papers, Murray speculated that she was really a man in a woman’s skin. She implored doctors for answers and even signed up for exploratory surgery, convinced it would reveal undescended testicles. The only thing out of place was an inflamed appendix, which the surgeon removed.

“These experiences have always existed,” Raquel Willis, a writer and activist with the Ms. Foundation, says in the film. “Pauli’s historical records allow us to consider the humanity of someone who is Black and gender nonconforming in the time that Pauli was living.”
 

 
My Name Is Pauli wonders what its subject would think of the world we live in today: the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage or the University of North Carolina’s denial of tenure to Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — along with her “no thanks” to the school’s eventual offer.

The UNC situation might have been particularly notable since Murray was denied entry to the law school because, the university president said, the Constitution and the law forbade it. An incensed Murray wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt after he made a speech at the school praising it for its liberal policies. She chastised FDR for his silence on civil rights.

“It was a typical hot protest letter from Pauli Murray,” biographer Patricia Bell-Scott says in the film.

Murray sent a copy of the letter to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That correspondence began a long-lasting friendship that Bell-Scott says was not romantic.

Later in the film, viewers learn that Murray was someone always in overdrive, who often drank coffee through the night, who worked hard and loved hard. When a partner died, a devastated Murray pursued the priesthood. When she learned she had pancreatic cancer, she raced against her disease to publish her second biographical work, published a few months after her death at the age of 74.

After this journey, viewers will likely understand a quote from one of Murray’s poems recited near the beginning of the film: “Hope is a crushed stalk between clenched fingers … Hope is a song in a weary throat.”


 
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