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My Name Is Pauli Murray: New Film on Black Queer Legal Pioneer Who Inspired RBG & Thurgood Marshall

StoryJanuary 29, 2021
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Image Credit: Schlesinger Library/Radcliffe Institute/Harvard

We spend the hour looking at the life of one of the most pivotal figures in the history of struggle for gender equality and racial justice, Pauli Murray, whose story is told in the new documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Murray was a trailblazing Black, nonbinary, queer, feminist poet, lawyer, legal scholar and priest, who influenced the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall and is viewed as a hero to many in the trans rights movement. We feature excerpts from “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” which features new footage and audio recordings of Murray in their own words and interviews about Murray with Ginsburg and Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and speak with the filmmaking team behind the documentary, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. We are also joined by Dolores Chandler, a social worker and equity facilitator and trainer in Durham, North Carolina, who is featured in the film and is the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. “The fact is most of us were not taught about Pauli Murray,” says Cohen. “This is a person who influenced so many different movements in the U.S.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

One of President Biden’s first steps in his first week in office was to end the Trump ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military and issue an executive order to clarify protections for trans people in the workplace, schools, in healthcare and more. He also signed four executive orders to advance what the White House calls his racial equity agenda.

The moves are steps on the long path toward equality, and today we spend the hour looking back on one of the most pivotal figures in the history of this struggle: Pauli Murray, a trailblazing Black, queer, feminist poet, lawyer and legal scholar, and priest, who was discriminated against from childhood because of their race or gender, or both, and went on to question systems of oppression and conformity with a radical vision ahead of their time that influenced landmark civil rights decisions and gender equality legislation that transformed our world.

As a civil rights pioneer, Pauli Murray was arrested 15 years before Rosa Parks for refusing to give up a seat on a bus. Pauli later helped found the National Organization for Women. Pauli also became a priest and is now a saint in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli Murray’s story is told in a new documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival that opens this weekend, that features never-before-seen footage and audio recordings of Pauli Murray in their own words.

INTERVIEWER: Can I take some close-ups of you without your glasses?

PAULI MURRAY: Mm-hmm. [dog barks] Lie down. Sit down. Lie down. Lie down.


PAULI MURRAY: He has to be in everything. My name is Pauli Murray, and my field of concentration has been human rights. My whole personal history has been a struggle to meet standards of excellence in a society which has been dominated by the ideas that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and women were inherently inferior to men.

AMY GOODMAN: How influential was Pauli Murray in the fight for equality? They played a key role in developing Thurgood Marshall’s arguments that led to the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. And they inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first argument before the Supreme Court as a lawyer that the Equal Protection Clause that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race also made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, a practice Pauli Murray called “Jane Crow.”

Pauli Murray inspired so many people, yet their experience as a nonbinary Black person has often been overlooked. Their role in all of these histories has been overlooked. In a letter to their Aunt Pauline in 1943, Pauli Murray wrote, “I don’t know whether I’m right or whether society (or some medical authority) is right. I only know how I feel and what makes me happy. This conflict rises up to knock me down at every apex I reach in my career. And because the laws of society do not protect me, I’m exposed to any enemy or person who may or may not want to hurt me,” they wrote.

In the new documentary, [My Name Is] Pauli Murray, trans activist and writer Raquel Willis and queer and trans writer Dolores Chandler share how Pauli Murray is also a hero to many in today’s trans rights movement.

DOLORES CHANDLER: As a trans, gender nonconforming, queer person of mixed race myself, I thought, “Mm, this is a feeling I know well.”

We’ve been taught to believe that people like us don’t exist. So, when I came to know and learn about Pauli Murray, I was so amazed and wanted to, like, hold it so tightly. And also I was angry. I was so angry that I felt in some ways that I had been robbed of a part of my history.

I identify with the turmoil of someone who was trying to live life as a complete being with an integrated body, mind and spirit.

If Pauli Murray were sitting here today, and I said, “You know, Pauli, what pronouns do you use?” I don’t know what Pauli Murray would say.

RAQUEL WILLIS: Being Black and queer myself, I refer to Pauli as “they” or simply “Pauli,” to acknowledge their expansive gender experience.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Raquel Willis and Dolores Chandler in the new film My Name Is Pauli Murray. Dolores is the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center and joins us now from Durham, North Carolina. We’re also joined by the film’s directors and producers, Julie Cohen and Betsy West. The film grew out of their Academy Award-nominated documentary RBG. [My Name Is] Pauli Murray is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the premier film festivals in the world, which has just started and is taking place, well, mostly online due to the pandemic.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Betsy West, I wanted to begin with you. Talk about how you learned about Pauli Murray and the trajectory that this film has taken, following your critically acclaimed film RBG.

BETSY WEST: Well, we learned about Pauli Murray from RBG. As you mentioned, RBG credited Pauli Murray with ideas about using the 14th Amendment to win equal rights for women. And, in fact, RBG put Pauli Murray’s name on the cover of the first brief that she wrote before the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed. So, you know, Julie and I heard the name and learned a little bit, but after the documentary RBG was finished, we started to do a little more investigating, and it didn’t take long to realize that this chapter in Pauli’s life was just one of an extraordinary series of events. And we just thought — well, first of all, like, “Wow! Why didn’t we know about Pauli Murray?” and “What an amazing story!” and “Would it be possible to make a documentary about Pauli?”

AMY GOODMAN: I actually wanted to go to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Shortly after the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year, Time magazine published a never-before-seen interview with RBG from 2017 talking about how Pauli Murray influenced her.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: The 14th Amendment contains my favorite clause of the Constitution: “Nor shall any state deny any person the equal protection of the laws.” Pauli had the idea that we should interpret the text literally. It said “any person,” not “any male person.” She wrote this remarkable article called “Jane Crow and the Law,” where she called attention to all the laws that restricted what women could do. Reed v. Reed was the turning point gender discrimination case in the Supreme Court. I wrote the brief in Sally Reed’s case. I put on the cover Pauli Murray’s name. By the time of Reed, Pauli had already changed her interests. She was going to divinity school. She was into ministry, not lawyering. But we knew, when we were writing that brief, that we were standing on her shoulders.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s none other than with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking to the filmmakers Margo Guernsey and Llewellyn Smith back in 2017. RBG is also featured in My Name Is Pauli Murray. So, Julie Cohen, if you can take us back? I mean, what is astounding about this, and I’m sure for many around the world who are watching or listening to this or reading about it right now, is this is the first time they are hearing Pauli Murray’s name, yet named by RBG as one of her inspirations. And then go back in time to Thurgood Marshall and before that, as well.

JULIE COHEN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, certainly, there is a growing awareness among progressives in the U.S., Episcopals, people who live in Durham, North Carolina, you know, pockets of extreme interest and academics who are interested in Pauli Murray. But the fact is, most of us were not taught about Pauli Murray in our elementary school history classes, as perhaps we should have been, or later in our schooling. And yet this is a person who influenced so many different movements in the U.S., not only, as you were talking about, the fight for gender equality, but also the fight for racial equality.

When Pauli Murray was at Howard Law School in the early 1940s, Pauli wrote a paper making the argument that Plessy v. Ferguson should be overturned, that 1896 — the notorious 1896 Supreme Court case laying down the rule of “separate but equal.” The feeling of the early civil rights movement at that point was, what we should be fighting for in the “separate but equal” realm is to sort of, you know, improve the conditions in segregated institutions. Pauli Murray’s argument was, “No, no, no, this whole construct is faulty. 'Separate but equal,' by definition, is unfair. And by keeping people separate, you are treating them unequally. You’re creating a stamp or a badge of inferiority, telling people that people need to go into their own corners.”

Pauli’s teachers and classmates at Howard Law School thought this idea too radical, in Pauli’s description. There was laughter and mocking. Pauli said, “I think that Plessy is going to be overturned.” I think within 25 years was Pauli’s guess. One of Pauli’s professors made a $10 wager, saying, like, ” No, absolutely no way.” Of course, 10 years later, 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling came out saying exactly that: “Separate but equal” is unconstitutional.

And Pauli’s law professors were involved in that case — Spottswood Robinson, who was Pauli’s professor at Howard, Thurgood Marshall, also teaching at Howard. Like, all the great civil rights icons were very much circling around Howard University. And, in fact, Pauli’s paper was used in developing the arguments that went into the Brown v. Board of Education brief. There are some specific points that Pauli makes that actually find their way into the formal brief and then into the Supreme Court ruling.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an audio clip of Pauli Murray speaking in 1966 at the Harvard Law Forum.

PAULI MURRAY: Nature does not ask us where she distributes brains, intellect, talent, drive. She simply scatters these with the recombination of the genes. In some ways, I might have been disadvantaged to have been born a Negro in white America, a woman in a man’s profession, left-handed in a right-handed world, and, I might throw in, even an orphan at an early age. But there were certain advantages in this status, which I didn’t see then but I see in retrospect. I therefore came to sex discrimination much later than I came to race discrimination. And having fought the battle of race discrimination, I began to see how integrally these two discriminations were. Since I could not split myself, and since I had to be a unified human being, I decided that it was not I that was wrong but the society that was wrong, and that any time a society penalizes an individual because of a biological attribute, whether it be race per se or whether it be sex per se, that society is going to be challenged.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Pauli Murray speaking at a Harvard Law Forum. Pauli Murray went to Howard Law School. In the ’40s, Pauli Murray wrote a letter to Harvard Law School after being rejected for a further degree. At the time, the school only accepted men. Pauli wrote, quote, “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds.” Now, this is not a minor point. She is prevented from going to Harvard Law School because they said they would not accept women to Harvard Law School. She would go to the University of California, Berkeley, then get another degree at Yale. Now a building is named for Pauli Murray, the first African American named on a building — a building is named for.

Betsy West, if you could talk about — a lot of what’s embedded in what Pauli Murray is saying — now, Pauli Murray at the time referred to herself as “she,” but this is at a time when she had asked for testosterone treatment, when they had asked for testosterone treatment, when they were asking doctors, “Could it be that in fact I am male?” when there was an appendix problem, begging the doctor to do exploratory surgery to see if perhaps they had male genitalia inside.

BETSY WEST: Yeah. As you said, this was a struggle that Pauli went through privately. You know, Pauli wrote about civil rights, women’s rights, her fight for those things, but at the same time, as a young woman, Pauli was experiencing the feelings, “Hey, I’m a man,” and, in Pauli’s thirties and forties, consulting a series of doctors. It was really extraordinary to read the letters that are in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, where Pauli’s archive resides, in a folder that Pauli saved for posterity, to read her struggle to find an answer to the feelings that Pauli had at the time.

I mean, you have to remember, in the 1930s and 1940s there was no language, there were no words to describe the feelings that Pauli had had from the time that she was a little girl, and something that was a private struggle, that now, thanks to her saving all of this, we know about, and I think many people in the trans community, we’ll hear about, have identified with very strongly. You heard from Dolores earlier. Look forward to hearing from Dolores now.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to bring Dolores into this conversation now. Dolores Chandler, you were the project coordinator at the Pauli Murray Project in Durham. I wanted to read a quote to you from another person featured in the film, the well-known attorney who we just had on this week from the ACLU, Chase Strangio, who tweeted, “I hope everyone gets to learn about Pauli Murray — one of my heroes. I also think it is wrong to refer to Pauli with she/her pronouns. I hope we move away from that. We owe Pauli the respect to hold the capaciousness of Pauli’s experiences in the world.”

Dolores, talk about how you learned about Pauli Murray, your feelings at the time, not having grown up with her as — here I use the term “her,” because she, herself, earlier — but in this day and age, as Chase Strangio says, do not use those pronouns. Your thoughts?

DOLORES CHANDLER: Well, so, to go back to how I learned about Pauli Murray, I was really introduced to who Pauli Murray is and was in 2013, when I learned about the Pauli Murray Project. And I think that, for me, as I mentioned in the documentary, there was a real clear moment of recognition, in the sense that here was this person who — and I think that Raquel Willis really uses the perfect word: “expansive.” Here’s this person who is so expansive in their being, not just in terms of gender, but in terms of every — a person who’s become so integral in almost every aspect of our culture, and to recognize somebody who was holding a sense of turmoil around something that is very integral to their being.

And what Pauli talks about is the necessity to be a — to not fragment themselves and to be integral or integrated into body, mind and spirit. And so, I think the ask to refer to Pauli with gender-neutral pronouns, as opposed to with she/her pronouns, is an ask to acknowledge the complexity and the fullness and expansiveness of who Pauli was as a person. So —

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your thoughts, Dolores, and your feelings, when you first learned about Pauli Murray, how you came to be, at the time, the coordinator, project coordinator, at the Pauli Murray [Center] in Durham, North Carolina.

DOLORES CHANDLER: So, I came to be in that position really through my field internship. I was in a social work program at UNC at the time, and I had been invited to participate in a weekend-long sort of discussion where there were people from disciplines relevant to Pauli Murray’s life. So I spent the weekend with lawyers and priests and theologians. And I also was showing up not just as a social worker, but as a community organizer and performer. And we were all talking about the impact that Pauli Murray had had on our lives and on our fields and our disciplines.

And I think that I, for the first time ever, was introduced to this person who not once ever really compromised who they were in order to achieve what they were trying to achieve in the world. And I think that when you’re someone — you know, in my social work program, I was at the time the only out gender nonconforming, also queer person of color in the program. And so, when you’re the only one of your kind in a space, it is a very isolating and lonely experience. And to then encounter someone like Pauli Murray and to recognize that there were people like me and people like us who had come before us, but because of the way our society is constructed, our presence and our identities and the wholeness of who we are is often treated as either irrelevant or lacking in value, we trans and gender nonconforming folks are forced to sort of, in a lot of ways, navigate this world with the belief that we’re an aberration or an anomaly or don’t actually make significant contributions to culture, to society or to policies.

And then to turn around and find this person who experienced a similar turmoil, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is a lie.” Like, to be treated as though trans people don’t exist or that trans people or gender nonconforming or nonbinary people are a problem or that their contributions are of value only insofar as we brush aside or we don’t talk about those parts of that person that make us really uncomfortable or that we don’t understand, forces that fragmentation and ultimately is a violence. So, when I learned about Pauli Murray, if I could have — you know, if that had been an in-person meeting, I would have just fully embraced Pauli and hugged Pauli so tightly to myself, because that was a life-giving moment for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Chandler, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion, now Dolores a social worker and equity facilitator and trainer, the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Project — the Pauli Murray Center, that’s talked about in My Name Is Pauli Murray, that is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.

When we come back, not only a pioneering legal scholar, but also an Episcopal priest, now saint. We’ll hear from Michael Curry. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “If Not Now” by Tracy Chapman. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour looking at a person written out of history books, but who was so pivotal in the history of the struggle for equal rights in this country: Pauli Murray, the trailblazing, Black, queer, feminist poet, lawyer and legal scholar, and priest, who influenced landmark civil rights decisions and gender equality legislation that transformed our world. Late in life, after being a tenured professor at Brandeis University, Pauli Murray became a priest in the Episcopal Church, now considered a saint. This is Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry speaking about Murray’s legacy in the fight for civil rights.

BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY: Long before, almost 10 years before, Rosa Parks sat down and refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Pauli Murray sat down on a bus and refused to give up her seat, refusing to sit in the segregated section. She anticipated movements that would come years later. She sowed the seeds for change that would eventually happen. It was Pauli Murray who produced the seminal study of segregation laws throughout the United States that formed much of the basis for the legal work of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that went into the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Pauli Murray did most of that legal research on civil rights — on segregation laws that needed to be overturned. That was Pauli Murray. She anticipated change that would impact both civil rights, but women’s rights and eventually LGBTQ rights. She anticipated all of those things in her legal work, in her legal writings.

Her friendship with the late Eleanor Roosevelt was a friendship that was built on a mutual commitment to values of a humane and a decent world. She worked assiduously for that kind of world, even though she herself did not actually see it. She wrote and worked for the equality of women and for equity. In fact, there’s a new commentary, a new article I saw the other day, that has Ruth Bader Ginsburg referring to Pauli Murray as one of her heroines, if you will, in the struggle and in the work. She’s an unsung hero for the rights and the equity of women, an unsung hero for the rights and the equality and equity of all people in this country, an unsung hero for the rights of LGBTQ people in this country. She anticipated it. She saw it before it happened. And she worked for something that she would never see, but she did it so that some of us might actually see it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, talking about Pauli Murray. Bishop Curry became global when he gave the sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

This is Democracy Now!, as we continue with the directors of the new film My Name Is Pauli Murray, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, their new documentary premiering at Sundance Film Festival this weekend. And we’re joined by one of the subjects in the film about Pauli Murray, Dolores Chandler, who is featured in that documentary, former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center in Durham, North Carolina, now a social worker and equity facilitator and trainer.

Julie, the life trajectory of Pauli Murray, it is just absolutely incredible, and incredible that we, unless in different worlds closer in those worlds, legal worlds, women’s rights worlds, so many have not known about Pauli Murray. When Pauli Murray was rejected by Harvard for being a woman, they were doing that even though FDR, the president of the United States, wrote a letter to Harvard to say that Pauli Murray should be accepted. Pauli Murray was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who sent flowers to Pauli Murray when they graduated from Howard Law School. Not only was Pauli Murray a professor at Brandeis, but she also lived in Ghana. If you can just talk about that part of the trajectory and then deciding to become an Episcopal priest in the later years?

JULIE COHEN: Yeah, there is so much to this trajectory that it’s, as you’re seeing, hard to fit into a segment of a show, hard to fit into a film, every single chapter more fascinating than the last. Pauli was motivated to move, to uproot and move to Ghana in the late 1950s. At the time, Pauli was working as an associate at the prestigious New York law firm Paul, Weiss, a period of life where, for the first time, despite making so many contributions, often Pauli was struggling to have enough money to pay the rent, and finally, at Paul, Weiss, was making a great living, not feeling hugely fulfilled by the work, but certainly was intellectually engaged.

And then, in 1959, a man named Mack Parker was lynched in Mississippi — a big national news story at the time, that there would be this brutal lynching as late as 1959. And it just shook Pauli’s world. And that led to the thought of, “You know what? Not only I want to change my career path, but like I actually want to get out of the country for a while.” Pauli took up an offer to go to the forming new law school in Accra, Ghana, and was there for 18 months teaching constitutional law concepts to African law students, ran into some trouble with the not-so-interested-in-constitutional-democratic-principles government of Ghana at the time and decided it would be safer to come back to America. That was the period when Pauli got a doctorate at Yale Law School and, as you say, moved into academics.

We’re leaving out of this — like every time I say something, I think of a chapter that we’re not mentioning of all the accomplishments we’ve talked about. Pauli was also an unbelievable published writer of both memoirs and poetry, and after becoming a tenured professor at Brandeis, as you say, made the decision that at the core of everything Pauli had fought for through life — you know, the activist struggles and the legal struggles — maybe politics and law weren’t the best way to achieve the huge, monumental societal shifts that Pauli and others in the movement were seeking, and maybe spirituality and God were the answers.

And that’s what led Pauli to divinity school, at a time when women — and remember that Pauli was identifying in the world as a woman at the time — at the time Pauli started divinity school, the Episcopal Church was not ordaining women. Fortunately, by the time that Pauli got the degree, Pauli was in fact ordained as an Episcopal priest. And those who knew her, we interview — or knew Pauli — we interview Pauli’s grandniece in the film, saying that becoming a priest really shifted Pauli’s perspective and really turned Pauli from a talker to a listener and mellowed Pauli, but not in a way that quieted Pauli, but in the way of like a mellowed activist.

AMY GOODMAN: And through all of this period, I mean, the decades, what’s so astounding at how much Pauli Murray accomplished, an amazing memoirist, journaler, as you said, poet, was institutionalized, would get depressed, had relationships, when they ended, with women, fell apart. Can you talk about overcoming all of this?

BETSY WEST: You know, Pauli —

JULIE COHEN: You know — go ahead.

BETSY WEST: Sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead, Julie. Sorry.

JULIE COHEN: You know, it was really the spirituality that helped Pauli overcome loss and struggle. And I think that’s where — it was after the death of a 15-year partner, Irene Barlow, that Pauli went to divinity school and found in the church solace from some of the lifelong struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Betsy, you wanted to add?

BETSY WEST: Yeah. I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of being institutionalized, and also understanding their — just talking to medical doctors all through this period.

BETSY WEST: You can only imagine how incredibly frustrating and difficult it was for Pauli to have this strong feeling of being a man and not getting any kind of validation for this. And yes, Pauli was in and out of institutions, suffering breakdowns, basically, in the 1930s and into the ’40s. Eventually, Pauli did find this love relationship with Irene Barlow, which, as Julie said, lasted for 15 years. And I think that was a great solace for Pauli.

I also think that the move — Pauli had always been religious, had gone to the Episcopal Church, had always — had found — actually, the relationship with Irene, they shared a passion for religion, used to go to church together. I also think that it gave Pauli space to devote herself to Pauli’s autobiography, which she spent the last few years, Pauli’s life, writing very seriously. In one interview, we heard Pauli was introduced as a lawyer turned poet. She said, “No, I’m a poet turned lawyer.”

For Pauli, writing was probably the most important form of expression. Pauli had written an amazing family memoir, Proud Shoes, which is kind of like the precursor to Roots — an extraordinary story of her own family, mainly in the 19th century — and then went on to finish her autobiography, which was extremely important to Pauli.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but people should begin to explore. Julie Cohen and Betsy West are the award-winning directors of the new documentary, My Name Is Pauli Murray, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival virtually this weekend. Thanks also to Dolores Chandler, the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center in Durham, featured in the film.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Special thanks to Julie Crosby and Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman. Be safe. Wear a mask.

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