Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat and a full decade before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation; Pauli Murray was already fighting for social justice. A pioneering attorney, poet, activist, priest and dedicated memoirist, Pauli Murray shaped landmark litigation and consciousness around race and gender equity. Raised in the segregated south, Pauli Murray also struggled with broader notions of gender identity outside of cultural norms. Pauli Murray’s story and contributions to social justice deserves a place in history.
This Saturday, Juneteenth, the DOC10 Film Festival will debut its film, “My Name is Pauli Murray”. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, this film tells the story of feminist, non-binary Black Civil Rights lawyer, poet and priest, Pauli Murray. The documentary tells the Pauli Murray’s extraordinary journey through their own words. Murray fought against segregation, racism, sexism and discrimination while experiencing personal struggles around gender identity. Director Julie Cohen said, “We learned about Pauli Murray during our research on our documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We were blown away and astonished that we never learned this in school. That was the catalyst of us wanting to make this documentary”.
Pauli Murray’s work influenced a generation of leaders such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall, Brittney Cooper and more. While a student at Berkley, she wrote a thesis that examined the right of Equal Employment. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP used this thesis during the Brown vs the Board of Education Supreme Court case. Famously coining the phrase, “Jane Crow”, Murray addressed intersectionality and the oppression of black women. Using archival footage including recordings, photographs and written work in Murray’s own words, the film reveals a fight for equality years before the birth of the civil rights movement.
Cinque Northern, the film’s editor said he was intrigued by the fact that Pauli Murray was both a lawyer and a poet. “I thought it was interesting to see how someone like that communicated with the world and what kind of conclusions that kind of a mind would come to”.
While many fight for more inclusivity in the history books, the role of LGBTQ Black Americans is largely omitted from the narrative. Influential Black Americans identifying as LGBTQ were often relegated to the background or even forced out of the movement due to ignorance and homophobia. In “My Name is Pauli Murray”, we are introduced to an individual deeply passionate about equality for all while internally battling and wrestling with what it meant to be a non-binary individual in the early 1900s.
Director Betsy West says addressing her thoughts and struggles as a non-binary person in the film was intentional. “We wanted to make this a personal story, not just a history lesson. We wanted people connect with Pauli Murray as a human being and a huge part of Pauli stemmed her lived experience as a queer person.”
Pauli Murray famously said, “I’ve lived to see my lost causes found”. Director Julie Cohen appreciates Pauli Murray’s optimism and belief in humanity saying, “It’s hard to make progress without an optimism that looks past the present day”.
“My Name is Pauli Murray debuts this Saturday, June 19 at 9pm at the Davis Theatre. The Doc 10 Film Festival runs June 17-20th. For tickets and a full lineup, visit www.doc10.org. “My Name is Pauli Murray” will debut on Amazon Prime Video in the Fall.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20.