“We can’t comprehend legal movements for justice without understanding Pauli’s role in them,” Chase Strangio, an ACLU attorney, declares partway through “My Name Is Pauli Murray.” This idea reverberates throughout the stirring documentary, which takes a much-needed deep dive into the life and work of Pauli Murray, a highly influential attorney and activist. Using a combination of archival footage, Murray’s own autobiographical words, and interviews with contemporary thinkers, the documentary begins with Murray’s early life and then continues on to chronicle their brilliant legal contributions and trailblazing activism.
In addition to their career as a lawyer, Murray was a gender rights advocate, a poet, the first Black non-male person to be ordained an Episcopal priest, and even a one-time Mademoiselle magazine “Woman of the Year.” Many of Murray’s beliefs and ideals were considered radical at the time, but they blazed on, and in doing so will go down in history as an agent of progress who was instrumental in determining contemporary legislation, culture, and living.
Here is a rundown of some of the many milestone movements and rulings that Murray had a hand in shaping.
Murray was an early reader and a sharp thinker and talker, and from a young age was deeply interested in education. Obstacles to education were great at that time, but Murray, never one to back away from a challenge, still made their case for admission to Columbia University (which didn’t accept women) and to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (which didn’t accept Black people). Murray ultimately was not able to attend either school, but their efforts to attend them drew attention from media and activist organizations.
Murray did become a trailblazer at other schools. Their class at Howard University law school was entirely male, and later, Murray became the first African-American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale University. Their determination and ambition set them apart in the world of academia, and it also set the groundwork for their pioneering work later on.
Immediately after passing the bar exam in 1945, Murray was on their way. They became the state’s first Black deputy attorney general the next year, and several years later, began their seminal work “States’ Laws on Race and Color.” The piece rejected the “separate but equal” ruling that was currently in effect, and argued instead that civil rights lawyers should be fighting segregation directly.
Thurgood Marshall later said that Murray’s book was the “bible” of the movement, and Murray’s ideas also influenced the NAACP’s arguments during the influential Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which ended segregated schooling in America. From the beginning of their career, Murray was at the forefront of the movement to end segregation, and their work paved the way for the NAACP’s historic win.
We’ve all learned about the Jim Crow laws, but it was Murray who turned our attention to the way Black women were treated. During the civil rights movement, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to spotlight the discrimination that Black women faced on the basis of their race and sex. In 1964, they gave a speech in Washington D.C. called “Jim Crow and Jane Crow,” in which they declared that the struggle for civil rights hinged on “the indomitable determination of its women.”
Their insights into racial and gender equality demonstrated an extremely early understanding of what we now call intersectionality, or the interconnected nature of social categories like race, class, and gender, and the prejudices people can face based on these intersectional identities.
At the same time, Murray was one of the first to publicly denounce what they deemed the inequality of the civil rights movement. They even wrote a letter to civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph in which they protested the dearth of women speakers and leaders during the 1963 March on Washington. Murray was ahead of their time, and we have them to thank for drawing our attention to the unique struggles and strength of Black women.
Murray’s work and writing also played a crucial role in gaining rights for all American women, regardless of race. In 1966, they successfully argued the case White v. Crook, which resulted in a ruling that allows women to serve on juries — a decisive step in making the criminal justice system less weighted toward men. That same year, Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women, a grassroots group that is still active today.
Murray was also among the first lawyers ever to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause should apply to gender-based discrimination as well as racial discrimination. Later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would use Murray’s work as inspiration for their brief in the milestone 1971 Reed v. Reed case, which ruled that women could not be excluded in matters regarding personal estates. That Supreme Court case was the first time that the Equal Protection Clause had been applied to gender-based discrimination, and its precedent proved once and for all that women could receive equal rights to men under the law. Bader Ginsburg recognized Murray’s contribution by adding them as an honorary co-author on the brief — and continued to pay tribute to Murray up until their death.
“My Name is Pauli Murray” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.