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Pauli Murray is having a moment.
The potent but undersung 20th-century civil rights activist, legal scholar, poet, and priest seems to be suddenly everywhere.
Reactions to Murray trend toward astonishment. "Wow," Academy Award-nominated Director Betsy West said in a recent interview, "Why didn't we know about Pauli Murray?"
That bewilderment is warranted. Any account of the luminary begins to feel like a breathless litany: Murray, who identified publicly as a Black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks did; Murray was gender-nonconforming and is considered an early trans figure; Murray wrote the bible of civil rights law; Murray attended seminary and became the first African American woman ordained in the Episcopal Church; Murray was a pal of Eleanor Roosevelt's; Murray was a professor; lived in Ghana; was orphaned at an early age; wrote poetry and memoir; became a saint.
Murray was also a preeminent theorist of the converging biases of race and sex enshrined in law—what Murray called "Jane Crow" and we might now term "intersectionality." In January, My Name is Pauli Murray, a documentary contending with Murray's life, premiered at the Sunset Film Festival. The film, produced by Talleah Bridges McMahon, focuses primarily on Murray's juridical influence, which helped to make discrimination on the basis of sex unconstitutional and ushered in previously unrecognized protections for women.
Directed by West and Julie Cohen, the project grew directly from the duo's earlier work on Oscar-nominated RBG (Magnolia Pictures, 2018). "We knew when we were writing that brief that we were standing on [Murray's] shoulders," Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the eponymous subject of RBG said evocatively of a landmark 1971 gender discrimination case.
Distribution rights to My Name is Pauli Murray have been purchased by Amazon Studios and sources say it will likely be released this fall. In the trailer, black and white recordings show Murray shedding her iconic coke bottle glasses and affecting a debonair smile.
Murray also recently figured prominently in Netflix's Amend: The Fight for America. Released in February, Amend is a six-part docuseries created by Robe Imbriano and Tom Yellin and hosted by actor Will Smith. It takes a deep dive into the meandering legal interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment—the post-Civil War constitutional provision that guaranteed equal citizenship to all persons, "born or naturalized" in the U.S., including formerly enslaved men.
See also: Pauli Murray, Black revolutionary
"She's one of the most brilliant legal minds of her age," extols Smith. A cartoon likeness (the resemblance is *just* OK) of Murray rolls back sleeves as Episodes 4 and 5 wade into women's rights and same-sex marriage.
But despite relative obscurity in popular culture, Murray has always had a dedicated and far-flung following—in the Episcopal Church, among legal scholars, in palpable liaisons with contemporary queer of color communities, in Durham, North Carolina, where Murray grew up. Leoneda Inge, WUNC's Race and Southern Culture Reporter describes this hometown fan club as "a cultlike following of friends and supporters."
Inge hosts the three-part podcast Pauli, released this winter by North Carolina Public Radio. One of the podcast's many charms is that Inge eschews the facade of wholly objective reporting and instead lets her fondness for Murray permeate the documentary history. "We may as well be close as kin," Inge says of Murray early in the first episode.
Back in July, Murray was at the epicenter of a brewing controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when, as the nation became embroiled in the public reckoning with white supremacy that followed the murder of George Floyd last spring, faculty members of four academic departments petitioned the chancellor to change the name of Hamilton Hall, the academic building they shared. The building was named after former UNC History professor Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton, a champion of the South's perilous Lost Cause who, in the words of the department chairs, "promoted white supremacy in ways that were intellectually dishonest and damaging."
Their suggestion for a replacement namesake? Pauli Murray.
But Murray was never officially associated with UNC. In fact, her tenuous relationship with the university was extraordinarily vexed. Murray first applied for a graduate program in sociology at the university in 1938 in a bid to be nearer to her North Carolina-based family, but was denied admittance because of her race. This, despite the fact that Murray was a descendant of one of the university's early trustees, the white enslaver James Strudwick Smith—whose sons repeatedly raped Murray's enslaved great-grandmother, Harriet.
Murray's rejection became a sensational local news story. "Negress Applies to Enter Carolina U," read the Durham Morning Herald. Decades later, at the height of Murray's acclaim and while the university faced a lawsuit over desegregation, the University UNC offered Murray an honorary degree. She declined.
Though the proposed renaming of Hamilton Hall remains unresolved, local folks in the Triangle aren't waiting on the university to honor her remarkable life.
Last November, a crowd gathered on an unseasonably warm afternoon to celebrate what would have been Murray's 110th birthday. The Pauli Murray Center—Murray's ancestral home, now a historic landmark in Durham's quickly gentrifying West End neighborhood (full disclosure: my neighborhood)—hosted a community-sourced and collaborated public art exhibit curated by artist Courtney Reid-Eaton.
The "Loss + Hope + Joy Labyrinth," on display through this spring, is a socially distant provocation—one that clearly acknowledged the turmoil of the months of pandemic and protest that preceded it. These are months in which Murray's life work has felt eerily prescient.
"A labyrinth is a sacred space; a Spiritual tool; a process of pilgrimage; a map for loss and renewal; a guide for healing and growth," reads the Center's website by way of advertisement. It is also an apt homage to Murray's penchant for connection, entanglement, and abiding overlap. In a world that has failed, and so often continues to fail to represent Murray's fullness—in admissions policies, in normative social practice, under the law, in pronouns, and media productions—the labyrinth seemed a comforting analog. Its coil holds without containing.
Masked community members brought offerings to lay within the earthen labyrinth excavated on the Center's front lawn. Folks set down handfuls of buttons, dried flowers, and the carapace of a horseshoe crab. The labyrinth's bastion was adorned with pine cones in terra-cotta pots, worn tennis shoes, votive candles, a tambourine with rusted jingles, and a striped tie.
"The world is finally catching up to Pauli," Barbara Lau, the Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center said recently.
Many people talk about Pauli Murray being ahead of her time; early—too soon, even. And perhaps Murray was conscious of that too. "I am a prophet without eyes to see," she wrote in a poem, "Harlem Riot, 1943."
I walked the labyrinth often in late afternoon light as autumn in Durham settled steadily into winter.
I can't help but wonder if this moment of Murray's is right on time.