Review: 'My Name Is Pauli Murray' Reveals the Story of a Groundbreaking Queer Activist

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 27, 2021

'My Name Is Pauli Murray'
'My Name Is Pauli Murray'  (Source:Prime Video)

Betsy West and Julie Cohen's 90-minute documentary "My Name is Pauli Murray" illuminates the groundbreaking story of a queer Black woman whose quest for personal and societal equality became the underpinning for much of the 20th century's civil rights legislation. Much of the movie is narrated in Murray's own voice, from her numerous voice recordings.

Sadly, it's no surprise that an American woman of color's contributions have been forgotten or hidden. This fascinating film shares Murray's life and work — as a writer, poet, lawyer, activist and priest — and shows how she was years ahead of her time. There were 50-60 annual lynchings when Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910. As a teenager, she rode freight trains with other disaffected youth. Her penchant for wearing pants and her masculine presentation allowed her to do so without much harassment.

Murray attended Hunter College to study literature (the first of several universities and variety of degrees), and was arrested for sitting in the "white section" of a train on her way to Durham in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks. The defense she drafted about how segregation is violence, and how there is no legal basis for arbitrary racial and gender boundaries, was later used by Thurgood Marshall to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" doctrine. She added gender equity to discussions of Jim Crow laws, renaming them "Jane Crow" issues.

Murray continued her "confrontation by typewriter" with letters to Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she eventually developed a friendship. Both were orphans, reared by elderly kin, and were voracious readers and writers who loved dogs.

Murray also struggled with depression, likely due to gender identity issues. She had wanted to take testosterone and was institutionalized for a time. The doc notes that "her sense of in-betweenness made her critical of boundaries." She spent time in Ghana, but left because of its dictatorial leader. Mrs. Roosevelt urged President Kennedy to appoint her to a women's issues study committee. Murray co-founded the National Organization of Women and prodded the ACLU to use the 14th Amendment to defend women's rights. As one of the film's interviewees, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflects on how Murray's research and arguments informed and motivated her own work.

Wherever she worked, she was "walking history on campus" and was fortunate to see many of her "lost causes found." Her home library was her paradise, sporting books from top to bottom. She was the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, the final chapter before her death in 1973.

At the end of this inspirational story, the filmmakers urge us to "work for a world in which Pauli's ideas can come true."


"My Name is Pauli Murray" opened in theaters on September 17 and can be streamed on Prime Video starting October 1.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com