‘My Name Is Pauli Murray’ — portrait of an activist as a major influence

Murray was often at the vanguard of civil, gender rights

“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Pauli Murray once said. The activist and scholar is the subject of a new documentary from the makers of the film “RBG.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)
“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Pauli Murray once said. The activist and scholar is the subject of a new documentary from the makers of the film “RBG.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)
Jason Dick
Posted September 23, 2021 at 6:00am

Quick: Name the person who helped desegregate Washington, D.C., in the 1940s, was close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, influenced the legal strategies of Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as they prepped landmark Supreme Court cases, was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and was the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest.

No one coming to mind? Lucky, then, that “RBG” filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen are out with their latest documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray.”

“We learned about Pauli Murray toward the end of our editing process on ‘RBG’ for the simple fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg put, as a young lawyer, Pauli’s name on the very first brief she ever wrote before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing for gender equality. Not because Pauli was literally a participant in that case, but because the idea that RBG was advancing in that brief, that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment could secure gender equality, was actually an idea that had come from Pauli Murray,” Cohen said in an interview she and West did in conjunction with the movie’s release in theaters on Sept. 17.

As the two began looking into who this person was, “what we learned blew us away,” Cohen said. Here was a Black woman who was gender fluid before that was part of the vocabulary, a person sometimes decades ahead in public arguments and activism on civil and gender rights, and who spent the better part of 50 years in the arena on behalf of those issues.

When they told Ginsburg, the subject of their Oscar-nominated 2018 documentary “RBG,” about their plans, the justice said “fantastic” and agreed to another sit-down with the two for the Murray project.

In the new film, Ginsburg explains that her reasoning on gender equality in Frontiero v. Richardson came directly from Murray’s. “We were not inventing something new. We were saying the same things that Pauli had said years earlier at a time when society was not prepared to listen,” the late justice says in the film.

That kind of sentiment is echoed over and over in the film. 

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who spent years as a civil rights attorney before being elected to Congress, first met Murray in the 1960s at Yale, where she was a law student and Murray was about to become the first Black woman to earn a doctorate of the science of law there.  

“We were very intrigued by Pauli Murray,” Norton says in the film. “As far as we were concerned, we began the protests with the sit-in movement in the 1960s. We didn’t know anything about the very brave African Americans whose work is lost often with history.”

That was no abstract reference. Murray organized a sit-in protest in April 1943 of a whites-only cafeteria on D.C.’s U Street near the Howard University campus, the Little Palace Cafeteria. Within days, it started serving Black people. They eventually moved on to downtown cafeterias, desegregating much of the capital city’s businesses. That was 17 years before the Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina.

The examples of this throughout the movie, which have always been there in plain sight, are kind of dizzying. 

“The totality of Pauli’s life doesn’t seem to have really dawned on a lot of people,” West said.

A consistent theme of the movie and of previous works of biography and journalism on Murray is that this is the most important person you’ve never heard of. “What I say very often is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray is quoted in the film.

It’s not like she was hidden away. Murray was on the edge of power, and was covered at the time by the African American press. But when one considers the stature of the people Murray influenced, a wide-reaching story like the one West and Cohen tell with this movie is long overdue.

Making that happen for someone who died in 1985 was not a sure thing, particularly for a visual and audio medium like a movie. But the filmmakers had Murray to thank for an extensive personal and historical record — books of poetry and memoir, audio recordings, video recordings (on VHS, no less!), diaries, letters. Much of it is housed at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass. 

So, pack rats rejoice!

“We really have Pauli to thank for this. She was a person who saved everything,” West said, adding that through this record, “we realized we had a shot at bringing Pauli to life.”

“The intellectual value of what was on those pieces of paper and on those audio tapes, intellectual and emotional value, is just huge. And going through it feels like a revelation,” Cohen said. 

“My Name is Pauli Murray” is playing in theaters now, including at Landmark E Street in Washington and Landmark Bethesda Row, and will begin streaming on Amazon on Oct. 1.