On Sunday, Feb. 27, the Clayton Center debuted “My Name is Pauli Murray,” a documentary exhibiting the remarkable life of Pauli Murray, an unsung hero in the advancement of American civil rights. This film was made available to Maryville College through the Clayton Center’s partnership with the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.
In “My Name is Pauli Murray,” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West pay homage to the extraordinary feats of the civil rights trailblazer. Born in 1910, Murray was a Black human rights activist, civil rights lawyer, and a queer and nonbinary person who spent their life navigating gender and sexual identity while challenging notions of gender and racial supremacy in a world dominated by prejudice and discrimination.
Murray notes that they spent their life, “[Struggling] to meet standards of excellence in a society which has been dominated by the ideas that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and women were inherently inferior to men.”
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks’ infamous act of civil disobedience, Murray and a friend refused to move to the back half of a bus to accommodate white passengers while traveling to visit family in the South. The two were arrested for their insubordination. In response to this incident, Murray and their friend partnered with the NAACP to create a case challenging segregated seating. The judge refused to recognize the unconstitutionality of segregated seats and insisted that Murray and their friend were disturbing the peace. Murray’s efforts to challenge racist laws did not come to fruition just yet; however, Murray began to “get the sense that [they] were a small part of a teamwork effort which envisioned the ultimate overthrow of all segregation law.” Indeed, this defeat incentivized Murray to experiment with non-violent protest strategies, inciting Murray to later pursue a career in law.
Murray was a fervent civil and human rights activist. They led an audacious life, challenging systems of racial and gender inequality at a time when it was especially dangerous to do so. Yet, much of their work has gone largely unnoticed. Their intersecting identities as a gender-nonconforming woman of color caused much of Murray’s ideas to be dismissed, only to be achieved years later by someone else. Although Murray has been instrumental to the advancement of many civil rights movements and decisions, the world was never quite prepared for Murray’s transformative ideas, at least not yet.
Murray’s legal writings during their studies at Howard University set the precedent for Thurgood Marshall’s famous case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a civil rights case that ruled on the unconstitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation in schools. Murray had previously written about the importance of overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, the historic case mandating state segregation, during their studies at Howard. Instead of praising them, an instructor mocked Murray for being too ambitious. Years later, the same instructor shared with Murray that their writings at Howard had heavily inspired Marshall’s work in Brown v. Board, but Murray never received credit.
Murray went on to become the first woman to be ordained into the Episcopal church, the first Black female law graduate from Howard University, the first Black person to earn a Doctorate of Science from Yale, and co-founded the National Organization for Women, or NOW. Murray also coined the term “Jane Crow” to refer to the discriminatory practices against Black women.
“You can’t teach American history without talking about Pauli Murray,” shares Brittney Cooper, professor of Women and Gender Studies, during the film.
Murray’s work has been indispensable to human and civil rights activism and change. The documentary encapsulates the courageous and impassioned work of Murray, and, hopefully, more work will be done to commemorate their legacy.
“My Name is Pauli Murray” is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.