By Sandra Varner for Sacramento Observer

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a trailblazing Black transgender lawyer, professor, poet and priest whose struggle for justice and equality comes to life in “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” a newly released documentary.

Murray knew intimately what it meant to live a life that was out of sync — at a time when even language wasn’t sufficient to define or describe such a journey. Murray pushed against the limits—both the conventional and strict legislation and the narrow thinking around issues of race and gender equity. 

Born 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Anna Pauline Murray was taken in at the age of three by the maternal wing of the family following the sudden death of Murray’s mother. Embraced by loving grandparents, Robert George and Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, and two aunts, Murray exhibited a proficiency in reading and critical thinking, assessing early on the vast discrepancies in conditions African-American families lived in as compared to their white counterparts. Murray’s formative years were spent in a segregated North Carolina where Murray was among the first to integrate classrooms, courtrooms, and conferences to sit alongside with the world’s most influential powerbrokers. 

That gulf of injustice settled deep inside. As a child, Murray was reconfiguring boundaries of personal expression: eschewing dresses and typical “girl” play and eventually adopted the gender neutral name “Pauli”. Several scholars have explored Murray’s personal journals and writings, bringing to light that Murray identified at different parts of life as a man and as a woman. A visionary, Murray understood that the same arguments employed to assail Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination could be made to attack gender inequity — and, consequently, these pivotal insights became a professional signature. Confidante to Eleanor Roosevelt and inspiration to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who cites Murray in her first Supreme Court brief regarding the Equal Protection Clause), Murray frequently stood in close proximity to power. 

Rejected by the University of North Carolina for being black, and arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus, Murray didn’t dodge conflict, even if there was no precedent or model. Yet, there’s often an excruciating price paid for being “ahead of one’s time.” 

Richly recounted in Murray’s own voice—with archival audio drawn from intimate oral histories and interviews dating back to the 1970s — Murray’s timely story is augmented by testimonies from a host of contemporary thinkers, educators, and present day civil rights activists.  Among them are: Patricia Bell-Scott, Dolores Chandler, Professor Brittney Cooper, US Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ernest Myers and Reggie Sapp.

Q&A

Betsy West and Julie Cohen–co-directors of RBG, an absorbing account of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg–spoke with The Observer about this remarkable life.

Betsy West: Pauli Murray was a person ahead of the times who had ideas that nobody else was thinking about and sometimes was laughed at. For example, separate but equal, Pauli Murray said, “That’s ridiculous. There can be no equal if they’re separate.” At that time, in 1943, people laughed at Pauli and yet Pauli had the conviction that this was the right idea. Sure enough, 10 years later, this is the argument that Thurgood Marshall uses in Brown v. Board of Education.

Q: Describe Murray via the word, courage.  

Julie Cohen: One of the great things about Pauli Murray’s courage was an ongoing willingness to speak truth to power, no matter how powerful that power was. A great example, Pauli Murray was turned down by The University Of North Carolina (UNC) for a Master’s Degree, because as the president of UNC wrote, “We will not accept someone of your race.” US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) came and spoke at UNC saying what a great bastion of liberalism and open-mindedness UNC was. Pauli didn’t like that, and, was outraged by the fact that FDR was refusing to support federal lynching legislation.

Pauli had the courage to write an extremely strong, powerful letter to FDR telling him everything that was wrong with his thinking and had the wisdom to make a copy for Eleanor Roosevelt that led amazingly to a lifelong friendship with the First Lady, in which Pauli, again and again, repeatedly and courageously told FDR things that he was doing wrong, further, what he wasn’t doing right by America’s black citizens.

Q: Influential.

Betsy West: Influential. Pauli Murray influenced Thurgood Marshall in his thinking about how to win equality for African-Americans. Pauli Murray influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg in how to fight for gender equality for women. Pauli Murray is one of the most influential people of the 20th century, who has not really been recognized.

Q: Unrelenting.

Julie Cohen: Pauli was turned down by so many different institutions that Pauli absolutely deserved to be let into. Rather than giving up, Pauli unrelentingly kept going…. When Polly was a professor at Brandeis University, the tenure committee didn’t want to grant tenure saying, “Your work lacks brilliance.”

Pauli continued fighting for tenure, actually won tenure.  In an unrelenting desire to seek the next great thing, Pauli decided to go to seminary, seeking the Episcopal priesthood at a time when the Episcopal Church was not allowing women to become priests. Yet Pauli went ahead, studied and in fact, became the first black woman identified Episcopal priest.

Q: Longing.

Betsy West: Pauli had a longing to be understood, especially as a non-binary person. You see this in Pauli’s private writings to doctors saying, “People think I’m a woman, but I’m a man.” Asking doctors, “Can you help me? What about testosterone?” This is in the 1940s when there was no language, there was no understanding and there was no help for Pauli Murray.

So I think there was a longing that Pauli had, to be understood, for who Pauli was. Certainly, Pauli’s Aunt Pauline understood Pauli as a boy-girl and Pauli did ultimately find a love relationship, a long lasting relationship with another woman. Fulfilled but I think there was some loneliness and some longing in Pauli.

Q: Last word, as guardians of Pauli Murray’s story in this documentary, fidelity.  

Julie Cohen: As co-directors along with the film’s producer Talleah Bridges McMahon and editor Cinque Northern, we were all striving for fidelity–to be true to Pauli Murray’s vision of the world. We were able to do that because Pauli left such an extensive archive, both of writings, of audio and some video recordings. As much as possible, we wanted Pauli’s story to be told in Pauli’s own words, with the hopes of fidelity to who Pauli Murray was as this very brilliant, very complex, extremely multifaceted human being. And we hope that we’ve done some justice and created some fidelity to who Pauli Murray was as a human being.