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 bolstered the work of folks such as Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall, and aided last year’s ACLU Supreme Court victory. She questioned race and gender categories long before those conversations reached mainstream, or even academic, discourse. She was queer and nonbinary; she romanced women, and sometimes dressed and lived as 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 the history books.
We would not be where we are social justice-wise if not for Pauli Murray. I wasn’t aware of that until I saw “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new doc about the trailblazer. Learning about Murray and her achievements is reason enough to see the film, but fortunately it’s also interesting as hell. It’s the kind of doc that makes you want to consume all of its research materials — I added Murray’s “Song in a Weary Throat” and Rosalind Rosenberg’s “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” to my reading list as soon as the credits started rolling.
First things first: Murray definitely explored her gender identity and chafed at gender norms. She preferred masculine fashions and hairstyles and, while riding the rails during the Great Depression as a 20-something, passed as a young man and went by Pete or The Dude. She was sexually attracted to women. She seemed to experience gender dysphoria; it’s possible that, had she lived in a different era, she would have identified as a trans man. The general consensus from scholars today is that Murray was nonbinary; some use she/her pronouns to describe her, others use they/them. For the purposes of this piece, I will use she/her when referring to Murray, as most of the interviewees in “My Name Is Pauli Murray” do.
As the promotional materials for the doc emphasize, Murray was a pioneer — she was on the frontlines of the fight for racial and gender justice before the more “famous” events that make high school curriculums, such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus or Brown v. the Board of Education. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Murray pressed 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 calling out white liberals’ blind spots.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” is especially effective at spotlighting the double bind of misogyny and white supremacy Murray and many Black women found and find themselves in, which Murray dubbed “Jane Crow.” She was rejected by a Ph.D. program at Chapel Hill due to her race and encountered sexism while attending law school at Howard, an HBCU. Her legal arguments were used in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that overturned the “separate but equal” policy in public schools — but she was not credited for her contributions. Her scholarship also aided RBG’s Supreme Court fights against gender discrimination; Murray was credited but it’s Ginsburg who will forever be associated with those progressive victories. No matter where she turned or what she did, Murray felt she was held back because of her race or her gender or both. So she dedicated her life to creating a more just world through legal scholarship and activism — and, in effect, helping to empower younger Black generations, women especially.
The very fact that we don’t learn about Pauli Murray in school is proof of the exclusionary system she worked to dismantle. She made an indelible impact on queer history, Black history, women’s history, American history. She deserves to be recognized as the hero she is. With the release of “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” I hope she finally will be.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” is now in theaters and will be available on Amazon Prime Video October 1.