“My Name is Pauli Murray” is showing at the Sundance Festival. The film is directed by the directors of “RBG.” Variety calls her “one of the titans of civil rights.”
Intricately crafted without being flashy, the Sundance-launched documentary trusts that its subject can hold her own. Murray does far more than that. Although she died in 1985 at the age of 74, the human rights activist, lawyer, poet, professor and first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest owns this journey.
By pointing out the gap in years between Murray’s actions and landmark events, the directors make a purposeful, persuasive argument about Murray’s place in the nation’s Civil Rights history. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat, Murray and her good friend Adelene McBean were jailed for refusing to budge on a bus in Richmond, Va. Nearly 20 years before the lunch-counter sit-ins, Murray headed protests that desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C. Directors West and Cohen (whose “RBG” was nominated for a best doc Oscar in 2019) were introduced to Murray by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Five years before Ginsburg argued her gender equality case before the Supreme Court, Murray was leveraging the 14th Amendment on behalf of women.
Her personal correspondence and musings speak directly — and at times painfully — to the struggle for LGBTQ people and the growing understanding of gender non-conformity. From a young age, Murray was not comfortable with being female and there were periods in her life when the questions roiled. Her aunt Pauline, among the maternal family who raised her when her mother died, called Murray “my little boy-girl.” Correspondence between Murray and doctors reveals how profoundly troubled she was. But there was also a long-term romantic partnership with Irene Barlow and the film makes delicate use of that love story.
Harvard Law School, which at the time only accepted men, also rejected Pauli Murray. Pauli wrote back, “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds.”
Murray innovated legal theories and developed strategies of nonviolent social change that shaped the course of the civil rights movement. Pauli co-wrote a groundbreaking legal paper, “Jane Crow and the Law,” arguing that laws barring discrimination based on race equally protect women against discrimination based on sex. As an ACLU attorney, Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Pauli Murray as co-author of a seminal brief in a winning Supreme Court argument several years later.
“I came to sex discrimination much later than I came to race discrimination,” Pauli Murray said at a Harvard lecture on feminism in 1966. “Having fought the battle of race discrimination, I began to see how integrally these two discriminations were. Since I could not split myself, and since I had to be a unified human being, I decided that it was not I that was wrong but the society that was wrong.”
After the death of their longtime partner, Irene Barlow, in 1973, Pauli entered the seminary, becoming the Episcopal Church’s first African American woman priest in 1977. They ministered to the sick in Washington, D.C., until their death. The Episcopal Church sainted Pauli Murray in 2012.
“She sowed the seeds for change,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said.