There is a saying ‘not all heroes/heroines wear capes’… well it can’t be more aptly bestowed upon Pauli Murray. Most people probably haven’t even heard of Pauli, a non-binary Black lawyer, activist and poet who influenced two former Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. Now, I didn’t get to the US until college, so I’m not sure Pauli Murray is even part of US history curriculum in high school, but she should be.
Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed RBG in 2018, and while doing research for Bader Ginsburg, they came across information about Pauli Murray and decided to shine a light upon the multi-hyphenate civil rights activist as their next project. I’m certainly glad they did, what a fascinating, exemplary life she led, and many still benefit from her then-radical ideas.
The film gives a good context about the issues Pauli grew up on, with black/white footage showing the racial segregation in the South, and how all her life, Pauli too struggled against the racial prejudice and racist treatments. I love that Pauli herself actually narrated parts of her own story in this film. She told us that she came from a very proud people, where she grew up with her unconventional family, there’s even scenes of an educational tour to her childhood home in Durham, North Carolina.
Her aunts and her grandparents were named Fitzgerald and they were considered prestigious amongst the Black community. Some of her family members looked white (Caucasian) that they ‘passed,’ but they actually suffered prejudices from both the white and black community against their skin color. Pauli is somewhere in the middle in terms of her skin color. She uses poetry to express herself against all the injustices, some of her poems are displayed on screen in an elegant way with piano music.
Ever since she was young, Pauli knew she was different. She always preferred pants over dresses or skirts, but Aunt Pauline made her wear a dress when she goes to church. She reveled in being a tomboy, her masculine look with short hair and slight build, she’d even gave herself names like ‘Pete’ as a way to protect herself against sexual assault in trains, etc. when she’s traveling, which she did quite a bit. She wrote in her journal that she felt as if she was ‘one of nature’s experiments’ and she even told her doctor that she’s a girl who should’ve been a boy.
The film reveals some of the prominent relationships in Pauli’s life. The first one is with Peggy Holmes, whom she met at Camp Terra, one of the women’s camps established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The relationship didn’t last as Holmes couldn’t accept Pauli when she insists she’d be the man and Peggy be her wife. But it’s her relationship with Renee Barlow that’s most integral to Pauli’s life–they lived like married couple despite not living together. After Renee passed away, Pauli devoted her life to the church and became the Episcopal ordained minister.
One of the people featured in the film is from the Schlesinger Library, which has 135 boxes of her papers, some hadn’t been included in her published work. Pauli reportedly became depressed as she’s dealing with her attraction to other women. A few talking heads in the film are from the LGBT community and they identify with her struggle of gender identity. Apparently Pauli never wrote about her own gender struggles in her published work and rarely talk about it with her friends. Aunt Pauline was the only one she could talk to and who understand her for who she was.
What’s also not known to the public is Pauli’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which was borne out of her letter to FDR. She wrote to the then president as she became increasingly dismayed over his silence on civil rights issues and that he did not speak publicly against lynching. She also sent a copy to Mrs. Roosevelt who replied saying ’I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly. The South is changing, but don’t push too fast.’ But it’s her latter letters to her that resulted in Mrs. Roosevelt becoming not just her friend, but her mother surrogate
As for her significant-but-unknown influence in the US legal system, she certainly did not get the respect and acknowledgement she deserved. The film talked about the Brown vs. Board of Education case, a major victory of the civil rights movement in 1954 that actually benefited from one of Pauli’s civil rights paper she had written a year prior. But as the film pointed out, whenever that story is told, we see a photo of Thurgood Marshall standing on the Supreme Court steps, Pauli is nowhere in view. Bader Ginsburg was interviewed talking about how she had used Pauli’s past work in the landmark Supreme Court case regarding women’s rights of Reed vs Reed, but the difference is RBG rightfully credited her.
In a relatively swift 91 minutes, I’m glad I got to know an American icon and unsung heroine who championed race and gender equity. Cohen and West’s direction paints a beautiful, moving portrait of an extraordinary life of someone who used her intellect and legal smarts for good, which still benefits many people to this day. Pauli Murray was well ahead of her time who, as one of the interviewees said was ‘tragically precluded from being a part of the institution that she wanted to be a part of and has earned the right to be so.’ As another talking head said it perfectly, one cannot teach American history without teaching Pauli Murray and she truly should have been a household name.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is available to stream on Amazon Prime.