Pauli Murray paved the paths that the civil and women’s rights movements would march on and built the legal frameworks we exist inside today. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

When an outspoken Howard University law student named Pauli Murray helped lead a group of students into Little Palace Cafeteria, a restaurant on Washington D.C.’s U Street, one spring afternoon, they didn’t come expecting lunch.

It was 1943, and even in a neighborhood known for its flourishing Black businesses, vibrant theater scene (a.k.a. Black Broadway) and esteemed Black university, a few whites-only restaurants remained. Murray described the cafeteria as a place of “mortification,” where unsuspecting Howard students would breeze in, unaware that segregation still existed in a part of the city otherwise steeped in Black pride.

After Murray and the group were refused service, they took out their books, settled in and had class. More students flooded in, until the owner – overwhelmed but unwilling to budge – closed the place for the day. Soon after, the restaurant desegregated.

Seventeen years before lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., would draw national attention, Murray was acting on a nascent, radical idea about the clause that upheld segregation: “Separate” could never be “equal” because, in Murray’s words, separation “do[es] violence to the personality of the individual affected.”

Murray’s final law school paper outlined the idea, which turned out to have long legs. A decade later, a professor dug it out of his files when preparing arguments for Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that overturned segregation in schools. And that was only the beginning of Murray’s quiet but foundational influence – in the 1970s, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the 14th Amendment to argue against sex discrimination in Reed v. Reed, she cited Murray as inspiration.

This proved to be a pattern in Murray’s life. A lawyer, activist, writer and scholar, Murray paved the paths that the civil and women’s rights movements would march on and built the legal frameworks we exist inside today. And yet Murray was so ahead of the curve that when history was eventually written, it was often written without mention of Murray.

That could finally be changing. Murray’s childhood home in Durham, N.C., which became a national historic site in 2016, is slated to open to the public for the first time next year. In Baltimore, where Murray was born and later served as an assistant rector at an Episcopalian church, the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, is leading an effort to erect a monument to Murray. And a new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray” – directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who made the Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG” in 2018 – will be in theaters Sept. 17 and streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 1.

“Murray’s story overall, and I’d say even the film specifically, is arguing for a deeper, more inclusive look at history,” Cohen says. “Our goal isn’t [to suggest] we take the history books and just add a few pages on Pauli Murray. It’s more [to ask], does all of this need a big rethink?”

And society is rethinking – reexamining systems that create knowledge and memory, the stories we elevate and why. Curriculums are being rewritten, names are being removed, monuments are falling – all leaving behind the question of what or who will fill the empty space.

It is almost impossible to sum up the range and the depth of Murray’s influence. Murray wrote extensively: a 1956 memoir, an autobiography that was published posthumously, a book of poetry, a 700-page summary of racism in state law that Thurgood Marshall hailed as “the bible” of Brown v. Board of Education. Along with Betty Friedan, Murray helped found the National Organization for Women.

Accomplishments that in any other life would be definitional – the first person of color to receive a JSD at Yale Law; joining James Baldwin as one of the first Black writers at the prestigious MacDowell Colony; the first Black female Episcopal priest – seem almost small when you’re talking about someone who was instrumental in laying the legal foundation for equal treatment of more than half the population.

Looking closely at Murray’s life, a picture of U.S. history, made of its omissions, emerges.

Murray’s achievements weren’t the sort of clean victories history gloms onto but a lifelong process of starts and stops. Black in a white-dominated women’s movement and a woman in a male-dominated civil rights movement, Murray slid through the cracks of both. A mixed-race person who was attracted to women and struggled with what we would now call gender dysphoria, Murray’s very existence defied the categories racism and sexism rely on. Murray’s ideas about the arbitrary nature of those categories were so far ahead of the times, they were dismissed or ignored.

“We weren’t ready for the call of Pauli Murray. We weren’t ready to really embrace this idea that we needed to live in a world where we could show up as whole people,” says Barbara Lau, founding director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Murray’s hometown of Durham, N.C.

At age 3, after Murray’s mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Murray was sent to live with maternal relatives in Durham. For Lau, Murray’s ability to exist as a whole person can be traced back to the family’s North Carolina home – there, Murray was raised by an open-minded aunt who affectionately called Murray “my boy girl.” In 2011, Lau fought to save the dilapidated home, using a local land trust program to reclaim it.

Reconstructing a narrative for a forgotten figure presented West, Cohen and producer Talleah Bridges McMahon with challenges, including supplementing materials and places lost to time. They had a couple of news stories from Murray’s life, the archive at Harvard’s Schlesinger library – made up of 135 boxes donated by Murray – and RBG’s well wishes (an interview with Ginsburg, then 85, was the first footage they shot for the Murray documentary). But when they started, they didn’t know if they had any film or audio of Murray they could use. McMahon describes the project in its early days as “a leap of faith.”

When McMahon went to the archive, she expected it to be like Murray’s published written work – devoid of anything personal. Instead, she found Murray in full: decades of diaries; photos of Murray experimenting with male names and clothes; extensive personal correspondence with Murray’s long-term romantic partner, Irene Barlow, whom Murray met while working at a law firm; and letters to doctors seeking testosterone, to no avail. The documents were carefully curated with names crossed off and pages ripped out.

“As we were making the film, we started to get a sense that Murray knew that future generations were going to be interested in this story and that Murray very deliberately saved all of this material and left it for us to find,” West says.

It all came together fortuitously. An imprecise search of the Harvard database turned up footage a graduate student had taken of Murray in the 1970s that wasn’t in Murray’s archive. Right before the editing process, they discovered audio recordings of Murray reading the posthumously published “Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage” aloud for a friend, which would become the spine of the script.

When Murray appears in the film, it is up close and personal – rendered in a thoughtful, measured voice; in intimate, at-home footage with a beloved dog; and in images of Murray’s playful signature on letters to Irene. Elsewhere, the documentary is a portrait of Murray in absence, including the galleries of White male faces at universities that turned Murray away. Watching the film, you get the sense that you are both looking at Murray’s external world of barriers and inside Murray’s head, pushing forward anyway.

Bishop Sutton hopes a monument to Murray in the triangular park across from his diocese, which is just east of Johns Hopkins University, can inspire others to do the same. He envisions the park – where a Confederate monument resided until 2017 – as a meeting place for social justice events. A 100-yard-long expanse of grass with an empty plinth on one side and a single, small bench at the other, today, the park feels vacant and searching.

“Here’s the wonderful thing, especially for us and for me as a person of faith … We believe in redemption. We’re redeeming that park,” he says. “The old monument was a clarion call for those who just were not on the freedom train. We want to get a monument there honoring someone who calls us to honor everyone.”

And just as a monument can create new space in an old park, a new story can make room for more voices in history. For Lau, of the Murray Center, Murray’s story doesn’t just ask whom we’ve left out of history, “It invites us to ask, who are the people that are promoting ideas that people think are too fast or too radical or too edgy? Who are the Pauli Murrays of today?”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.