Why didn’t I know Pauli Murray?
This is the overwhelming response from viewers to the new documentary My name is Pauli Murray, produced by the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated team behind RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
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As West said in a tweet on Friday, “Some people are pissed off, some people dumbfounded that they didn’t learn about #PauliMurray.”
The documentary, now airing on Amazon Prime, corrects a historic injustice by presenting the audience with a “black, queer, gender non-conforming” person who has broken down barriers at every stage of their life. As a law student, Murray’s innovative thinking set the conceptual framework for overthrowing Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that validated the notion of “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites.
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“For most of Pauli’s life it was quite difficult and radical to fight for racial equality,” Cohen told Deadline. “It was quite difficult and radical to fight for gender equality and Pauli not only talked about these two individual things, but actually talked a lot about the confluence of the two, about discrimination against as a black person. and as a woman. things made worse.
Murray (1910-1985) grew up in Jim Crow south of Durham, North Carolina, in a family of African American, Native American and European descent. As fair-skinned people, they were not well accepted by the black community, but the white community rejected them as it did all people of color. Murray displayed early intellectual gifts and an early penchant for rejecting orthodoxy by preferring to wear slacks rather than dresses.
In 1940—15 years before Rosa Parks’ brave act in Montgomery, Alabama — Murray and a friend refused to ride in the back of an interstate bus as it passed through Virginia. They were arrested but presented their defense as a challenge to the legality of segregation in transport.
“I think every thing Pauli pushed for Pauli expected a change to happen,” notes producer and co-writer Talleah Bridges McMahon. “Pauli had this idea of ’If I can just explain to you reasonably the errors in your thinking and give you a new way of thinking about it, of course you will agree with that.'”
Thanks to legal maneuvers by a judge and the public prosecutor, the bus incident did not become the decisive moment for Rosa Parks’ demonstration. But that wasn’t the only time Murray was ahead of his time. In 1943, 17 years before the Woolworth Counter sit-in, Pauli and her fellow students at Howard University in Washington DC organized their own sit-in in a white-only cafeteria. They managed to integrate an entire neighborhood near the Howard campus.
It was at Howard Law School that Murray wrote an article articulating a new strategy to topple Plessy v. Ferguson – not, as others had done, to say that housing for African Americans was not kept on an equal level with housing for whites, but to argue that “separate but equal” violated inherently the 14th Amendment. Segregation itself, Murray explained, sent a damaging message to African Americans that they were inferior.
“Other people had been devastated by the idea of separating but equaling. ‘Okay, that’s what we have to face here,’ ”West observes. “Pauli said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. There is no equal when you are apart. It’s an optimistic take on questioning something that had been accepted for decades due to a decision made in the 19th century. “
When Pauli laid out his position, “My classmates laughed at me,” Murray remembers in the film. But his thinking deeply influenced Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson, and other members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when they filed a lawsuit in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that would finally dismantle segregation in public schools.
“Pauli just saw this several years before some of the greatest thinkers of the day saw it,” Cohen says. “It was an extraordinarily thoughtful idea and it turned out that Pauli was one hundred percent right, not [only] that it is morally correct but that in reality it is potentially a winning strategy, as there is a legal argument to be made here. “
At Howard, Murray regularly encountered sexism. Unlike many in the civil rights movement, she was simultaneously concerned about the rights of African Americans. and women, and she saw discrimination against the two groups as a result of the same moral failure.
“She coined the big term ‘Jane Crow’ to describe it,” notes Cohen. “And in a number of newspapers but also in interviews, we often raised what today’s activists might call the issue of intersectionality. It was an idea that was very present in Pauli’s mind because of Pauli’s experience.
Murray argued that the 14th Amendment could also be used to attack gender discrimination.
“The courts have not yet fully realized that women’s rights are part of human rights,” Murray wrote in an essay titled Jane Crow and the law, co-authored by Mary Eastwood. “But the climate seems favorable to further legal attacks against gender discrimination.”
In 1965, years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued her first Supreme Court case on gender discrimination, Murray crafted the legal arguments that led a U.S. District Court in Alabama to decide that women must be allowed to sit on juries.
“After so many losses and so many failures in a lifetime,” Murray said in the documentary, “this was my greatest victory.”
Ginsburg and Murray became friends, and RBG credited Pauli’s work as she argued gender discrimination cases in the Supreme Court that she would later join as an associate judge. In fact, it was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who first spoke to the directors about Murray.
“Then after RGB [told us] we started to take an interest in Pauli, ”West says,“ and we were absolutely blown away by all areas of our lives that Pauli influenced – civil rights, activism, labor rights, feminist legal theory…[We thought], ‘Oh my God, what a life and why didn’t we know about this person?’ “
Murray lived as a non-binary person before there was such a term. Her struggles with her sexuality and gender identity – at a time of great ignorance in society about it – contributed to a depression that led to her being hospitalized on several occasions. She eventually found love with Irene “Renee” Barlow, the office manager of a law firm where Murray worked for a time.
Murray was also a deeply spiritual person and made a decision that shocked RBG and other friends to quit the law and study to become an Episcopal priest.
“Ultimately, Pauli sees the limits of the law,” comments Bridges McMahon. “And that’s why you see this shift to spirituality which is ultimately like, ‘In fact, we have to reach the souls of the people. Until everyone has really invested in this common idea, we will never get anywhere.
During the last years of her life, Murray worked on a dissertation while battling pancreatic cancer. Songs in a weary throat was published posthumously in 1987. She saw herself primarily as a writer. Among his many salient words were: “A person plus a typewriter is a movement. “
“I think that’s why this is a good time to dive back into the messages Pauli has been spreading throughout life about how we can get things done as well as the very act of reconsidering our history with it. Pauli Murray in it, “Cohen told Deadline. “The whole question of who we revere, who are the contributions, especially the intellectual contributions, has moved the country forward – I mean Pauli Murray is just a fantastic example of someone whose story has not been sufficiently explored and needs to be learned more. “
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