“I want to see America be what she says she is in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America, be what you proclaim yourself to be!”
When filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West were making the Oscar-nominated RGB, they came across a citation that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had in her brief arguing for women’s rights before the Supreme Court. They thought it was worth finding out who this person was. My Name Is Pauli Murray is what they discovered. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, Pauli Murray was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus. Decades before the Wilmington Lunch Counter Sit-In, Pauli and other students desegregated restaurants in DC. Pauli was one of the founders on the National Organization for Women. Essays Pauli wrote were part of the arguments laid before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Pauli made the case that the Fourteenth Amendment could be used to protect women’s rights (as Ginsberg argued). And yet, so few of us have heard of Pauli Murray.
The film’s title makes it clear that this is an introduction. Pauli Murray’s name is one we should know, but don’t. And Pauli is an interesting personality. Pauli was something of a polymath. Pauli was an author, lawyer, poet, and eventually a priest. (Pauli was the first Black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.) Pauli often practiced confrontation by typewriter, writing letters to people of power. When writing to FDR, Pauli would copy Eleanor Roosevelt, which lead to a friendship.
You may note my lack of pronouns here. Pauli was gender non-conforming, and in today’s language would probably identify as transexual. As a child Pauli dressed and acted as a boy. The family referred to Pauli as a boy/girl. For a time, Pauli rode the rails in the persona of a man. When facing surgery at one point, Pauli anticipated the doctors discovering undescended testes. (They didn’t.) This sense of inbetweenness is important for understanding some of the work that Pauli did.
Much of the film is made up tape recordings of Pauli reading from an autobiography as it was being written. It is important that we can hear that story in Pauli’s own voice. It is also important to hear the stories of people who knew Pauli and who have continued to build on that legacy.
What I miss from the film (and that is no doubt because of my ministerial background) is any real examination of the theological understandings Pauli developed while attending seminary later in life or serving as a priest. Given Pauli’s wonderful insights while studying the law, I would expect that Pauli could also bring that background and intellect to the realm of religion with similar insights.
Pauli Murray truly was one of those unknown giants upon whose shoulders people are still standing seeing a future that can be made better. Pauli might well be seen as a footnote in the history of civil, women’s, and LGBTQ rights. To be a footnote does not lessen the impact. Indeed, we use footnotes as foundations for important ideas. Pauli may not have been someone most of the world see do important things, but great things were built upon Pauli’s work.
My Name is Pauli Murray in in select theaters and will be available in Prime Video beginning October 1.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios.