A Song of Hope: The Making of the Documentary "My Name is Pauli Murray"
There is a moment in Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray’s autobiography Song in a Weary Throat where Murray describes the importance of poetry and writing to Murray’s work for combating injustice: “I was learning that creative expression is an integral part of the equipment needed in service of a compelling cause. It is another form of activism.”
I read those words a week after watching the Sundance premiere of the documentary My Name is Pauli Murray, a film which, while not comprehensive, seeks to share the full scope of Murray’s life as a lawyer, activist, and someone who grappled with issues of race, gender, and spirituality all during one remarkable lifetime. Even for me, a person familiar with Murray’s legacy, this film provided a reminder that there is always more to learn and more that Murray can teach us about working towards justice.
It is in the use of Murray’s words (echoing the quotation from the autobiography) as a central part of the film that the filmmakers chronicle the life of an individual who was passionate about the work for equality and determined to do everything in their power to make a difference.
Barbara Lau, executive director of The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, one of the National Trust's National Treasures—and Murray’s childhood home, which is featured in the film—says, “Pauli Murray's legacy to the next generation—hope, justice, and a belief in democracy—come through loud and clear in this film, and we hope that bringing attention to Pauli Murray's brilliant life will also spotlight the work of the Pauli Murray Center where Pauli's story will inspire visitors today and for generations to come.” (The Pauli Murray Center is also a 2019 African American Cultural Heritage Fund grantee, where it received $50,000 to develop an interpretation plan, and in 2022 they received a grant from the National Trust and National Endowment for the Humanities Telling the Full History Preservation Fund).
As of September 2021, the public can watch My Name is Pauli Murray on Amazon Prime—and to provide a glimpse behind the scenes I interviewed directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, producer Talleah Bridges McMahon, and editor Cinque Northern about their experience making the documentary and why Pauli Murray is an example for us all.
What drew you to doing a documentary on Pauli Murray?
West: When we were making our documentary RBG, we learned that in her litigation to win gender equality, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been inspired by a groundbreaking lawyer and feminist legal scholar named Pauli Murray. After we finished RBG, we did some research and discovered so much more: a poet, an activist, and a non-binary person.
Murray refused to go to the back of a bus fifteen years before Rosa Parks, helped desegregate restaurants a decade before the modern civil rights movement, and contributed legal theories to Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education. Oh yes, and Murray befriended Eleanor Roosevelt at the same time as criticizing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became an Episcopal priest later in life, and wrote both an eye-opening history of Murray’s mixed-race family and a gripping autobiography.
At a certain point, we were asking ourselves, why don’t we all know about Pauli Murray and how can we not make a film about this momentous person?
“Give me a song of hope, and a world where I can sing it.”Pauli Murray, "Dark Testament"
I really appreciated how the film worked to include, in addition to the great photographs and video, some of Murray’s own words on the screen. How did you choose what to include and what not to include?
Cohen: We used a wide variety of Murray’s words on screen in the film in many different contexts: from legal writings that made a powerful case against discrimination, intimate journal entries and love letters, and poems that searingly reflect an emotional response to news events. We chose excerpts for the quality of the writing and what they could tell the viewer about Murray’s experience. We had a wealth of potent words to choose from, so what is in the film just scratches the surface—check out Murray’s poetry collection Dark Testament and you’ll begin to see what I mean.
How did you work with The Pauli Murray Center in developing this film?
McMahon: When we saw that Pauli Murray’s childhood home had been preserved, we knew we had to reach out to the director Barbara Lau. The center does a lot of engagement around connecting the public to Murray’s legacy and we wanted to incorporate that into the documentary. We landed on the idea of filming a tour for high school students in Durham because we wanted to witness Pauli Murray being introduced to a younger generation.
Because we are an organization that works to save historic places, what would you say are the essential places that tell the story of Pauli Murray’s life?
Northern: I'd say the childhood home in Durham was a big part of shaping Pauli Murray’s character. Also the home in Pittsburgh where Murray died after finishing Song in a Weary Throat.
Cohen: There are also places where Pauli Murray didn’t spend much time that played a key role in shaping Murray. Some are yet under-recognized by historians and the public, like the site of Mack Parker’s 1959 lynching in Poplarville, Mississippi, or the Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit where white rioters and police killed 16 Black people in 1943.
One of the places we are working to protect is the Pauli Murray House, and I love how the film ends with the young woman, standing on the lawn of the Center reciting Murray’s words. Why was it important to include that in the film?
West: To hear high school student Keleona Jiminez read an excerpt from Pauli Murray’s poem "Dark Testament," “Give me a song of hope, and a world where I can sing it,” felt like the right way to honor the legacy Murray left for future generations.
After a lifetime that involved struggle, misunderstanding and some important victories, Murray was never accorded sufficient recognition at the time. The fact that young people are now visiting the house where Murray was nurtured by a loving family, attending schools that bear Murray’s name, and grappling with ideas that Murray was often the first to espouse, seemed a fitting end to our story of a deeply optimistic person who once wrote, “I have lived to see my lost causes found.”
What were some of the challenges working on this film?
Cohen: The biggest challenge of this project was telling the story of a complex, multifaceted person who had made an almost unfathomable number of contributions to society and had died 35 years ago. Fortunately for us, Murray had the prescience to understand that future generations may want to know more and so had left behind an extraordinary archive of papers, journals, photos, audiotapes, and even some video which provided the foundation we used to piece together essential components of this monumental life
The film takes care and attention with Pauli Murray’s story as a gender non-conforming individual, weaving those pieces of the story in a way that is incredibly moving. Why do you think it was important, especially today, to center that part of Murray’s life?
Northern: You can examine Murray’s accomplishments, but I don't think you can really understand who Murray was as a human being without seeing the emotional challenges they faced as a non-binary person. It is central to who Pauli Murray was and what they did. It is also important in today's context to show that these experiences are not new, as Raquel Willis, a writer and transgender activist, says in the film.
What are the throughlines between Pauli Murray’s work and the modern-day fight for Black Lives Matter?
McMahon: At the heart of Pauli Murray’s work was ensuring that the United States would live up to its principle that all people would be treated equally. For Murray, this meant finding ways to make sure the government protected all of its citizens and making it clear that that included African Americans.
Murray also understood that in order to create true equality, racial justice movements needed to be what we would now call intersectional. Fast forward to today, Black Lives Matter activists are advocating for the same basic protections and doing so in a way that increasingly resembles the kind of movement Murray envisioned—one that advocates for Black women, Black LGBTQ people, and others who have been historically erased from the conversation.
How do each of you connect to Pauli Murray and her story?
Northern: I really connect to Pauli Murray’s courage because it always seemed to be rooted in optimism. Like Murray saw a better reality just beyond the barriers of societal norms and systemic prejudice. Murray was always willing to walk through those barriers, at great personal expense, to get there.
West: As a woman, I connect to and understand the pain of the sexism and sex discrimination that Pauli Murray endured. But as a white person who grew up in comfortable circumstances, it is frankly difficult to imagine the many struggles that Murray faced: poverty, racism, disrespect, ignorance about Murray’s gender identity, just to name a few. And yet, Murray persisted to accomplish so much, finding grace and humor and love. And so I connect with and take inspiration from how Murray persevered.
McMahon: Pauli Murray was aware of the societal limitations based on race and gender, but didn’t buy into those restrictions. In fact, Murray was constantly seeking ways to circumvent them in order to build a life that would be satisfying. For me that aspect of Murray was incredibly relatable. It’s vital to figure out how to chart your own journey regardless of what society dictates for you.
Cohen: Pauli Murray encountered barriers and pain as a gender non-conforming Black person which I can only begin to imagine. But because of Murray’s gift for language, I feel a deep connection to Murray’s experience. As Murray explains in our film, “back of all writing is a desire to communicate. You want to share...your insights, your feelings, your emotions.” In achieving that so brilliantly, Murray becomes surprisingly easy to form a connection with, even if one is separated by experience and by time.
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Editor’s Note: Because the film directly addresses Pauli Murray’s own thoughts on gender identity, this piece is using the pronouns they/them. However, because in Murray’s lifetime Murray discusses at length the experiences faced being both Black and a woman, pieces on SavingPlaces.org refer to Pauli with she/her pronouns and the role Pauli played in fighting for equality on both fronts. The Pauli Murray Center uses both terms, she/her and they/them, as part of a broader conversation about Murray’s experiences and identity.