Pauli Murray knew intimately what it meant to live a life that was out of sync—when even language wasn’t sufficient to define or describe a journey.
Lawyer, professor, poet, and Episcopal priest, Murray was an iconoclast who pushed against the limits—both the conventional and strict legislation and the narrow thinking around issues of race and gender equity. The struggle wasn’t abstract: Murray’s own life —as an African American intellectual whose gender identity felt fluid —personified it.
A visionary, Pauli understood that the same arguments employed to assail Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination could be made to attack gender inequity — and, consequently, these pivotal insights became a professional signature. Confidante to Eleanor Roosevelt and inspiration to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who cites Murray in her first Supreme Court brief regarding the Equal Protection Clause), Pauli frequently stood in close proximity to power. Yet the story of Pauli’s groundbreaking activism and influential legacy has largely been untold.
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, My Name is Pauli Murray pulls back that veil. This new documentary vividly maps Pauli’s journey— from a segregated childhood in North Carolina to integrating classrooms, courtrooms, and conferences to sit alongside the world’s most influential powerbrokers. Pauli’s course was not unencumbered nor unchallenged, yet Pauli used the barriers to inform the work, sharpen the arguments, and steel convictions.
Born in 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Pauli was taken in at three years old by the maternal wing of the family following the sudden death of Pauli’s mother. Embraced by loving grandparents and two aunts—Pauline and Sarah—Pauli exhibited proficiency in reading and critical thinking, assessing, early on, the vast discrepancies in conditions African-American families lived in as compared to their white counterparts. That gulf of injustice settled deep inside. As a child, Pauli was reconfiguring boundaries of personal expression: eschewing dresses and typical “girl” play. Instead of admonishing Pauli, Aunt Pauline accommodated those wishes, accepting Pauli as “my little boy-girl.”
My Name is Pauli Murray holds close to Murray’s extraordinary journey toward self — the long months of Depression-era vagabonding across America as an androgynous youth; the tumultuous college and post-graduate years, as an ambitious intellectual absorbed in books and armed with a fiery typewriter that allowed words to travel to quarters beyond physical reach.
Rejected by the University of North Carolina for being black, and arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus, Pauli didn’t dodge conflict, even if there was no precedent or model. Yet, there’s often an excruciating price paid for being “ahead of one’s
time.” Pauli might have lived the first part of life in the margins, but that would not mean that those narrow passageways had to be accepted.
Richly recounted in Pauli’s own voice—with archival audio drawn from intimate oral histories and interviews dating back to the 1970s — Pauli’s timely story is augmented by testimonies from a beloved grandniece, scholars, activists, and students, who place Pauli’s influence in the contemporary context. Pauli’s clarity and prescience predicted what would continue to be at the heart of this country’s vital struggle toward gender and racial equity. My Name Is Pauli Murray is a multidimensional portrait of an evolving figure who wouldn’t accept the status quo, a human who knew that like people, solutions aren’t fixed, but fluid.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is available on Amazon Prime Video October 1st, 2021