Wow. Like, wow. There is so much I didn’t know.
Not a stranger to African-American history or feminist history, but still never heard of Pauli Murray. And after watching this film, it seems incredible that could happen.
Who was Pauli Murray? Pauli Murray was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the segregated South 14 years before Rosa Parks. She brought a legal challenge to the Jim Crow laws behind her arrest and used it as a platform to speak out against racism and segregation. She wrote a paper against the Separate But Equal doctrine, showing how it contravened the 14th amendment of the Constitution while she was a legal student, and was derided by other students and dismissed by her professor – the same professor who went on to use the arguments in her paper while bringing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, securing one of the most major wins of the Civil Rights Movement and sending a wrecking ball into the legal basis for segregation.
While working with the ACLU, Murray argued in White v. Crook that the 14th amendment covered discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, succeeding in allowing women, as well as black men, to sit on juries in Alabama. 6 years later, her argument would be credited by Ruth Bader Ginsberg when she brought the same argument before the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, which upheld that discrimination on the basis of sex was in contravention of the 14th amendment of the Constitution.
She coined the term ‘Jane Crow’, and wrote about the intersectional oppression of African-American women on the basis of their sex and race. She co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women, alongside Betty Friedan. She had a lifelong correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, who requested her appointment to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Political and Civil Rights. She got Eleanor to use her influence on President Roosevelt in the case of a black sharecropper who had shot dead his white landlord, and he privately spoke to the Governor of Virginia to ask him to commute his death sentence.
Murray also worked for labour rights as part of the Workers’ Defense League. She taught Law in the newly independent Ghana, and how decolonisation was an opportunity to realise human rights. She organised student activists while at Howard University, and staged sit-ins in all-white diners with fellow women students 17 years before the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.
She was a writer, an essayist, a memoirist, and a poet.
She was the first African-American to get a Law Doctorate from Yale. She was the one of the first African-Americans, alongside James Baldwin, to be admitted to the McDowell artists’ residency. She became the first woman and the first African-American to get a residential college named after her at Yale. She was the first African-American woman to become a US Episcopal priest, and 2012 was named as an Episcopal saint.
She also may have been a trans man. Or perhaps transmasculine genderqueer. While during their life, they used she pronouns, now it would probably be more appropriate to use they or they/she. They spent their life perpetually in conflict with their assigned gender. They underwent surgery to find a pair of undescended testes that they were sure must be inside them, as it would explain so much about why they did not feel as though they were fully female. They spent their life seeking a doctor who would give them testosterone, as they were sure injections of the hormone were needed to correct an imbalance in their body. They struggled their whole life to find a language to put into words what they were feeling and who they were.
They described to doctors that they may be an ‘invert’, using the parlance at the time which covered lesbians, trans people, and even just butch or non-conforming women. Their loving relationships were exclusively with women. They were unable to be out during their lifetime, but they did have the support of their partner of almost 25 years, Irene.
It is so good to see a film which celebrates the contributions of gender minorities to the feminist cause. The feminist movements and achievements that we have today, are down the work, support, unity, and leadership of all those denied the privilege of the cis male gender.
Murray’s worldview was shaped by a life lived across arbitrary division. As a person of mixed racial heritage, with both black and white ancestors, that opportunities should be afforded to those labelled White and not Black was ridiculous, unjust, and cruel. As a person whose gender experience crossed the binary between man and woman, that a person’s potential should be denied or curtailed because they are labelled Female and not Male was preposterous, unfair, and obscene. They fought injustice everywhere they found it.
This film does a good job of boiling down an expansive life, each aspect of which could span a movie in its own right, to the the central thread of who Pauli Murray was – someone filled with deep compassion, who felt keenly the injustices of the world, and who worked tirelessly in every corner of their talents to promote understanding, empathy, and the shared bond of humanity. Pauli Murray is someone who sought only the successful outcome of their cause, and never pushed to the front for the limelight, or to establish personal glory. Pauli is seen in many photos of the century’s most recognisable figures, standing at the back or sat just to the side, almost a shadow in each great historical moment. And it is perhaps because of this effacing of ego, that it is necessary for us that come after to remember.