Perhaps Pauli Murray is finally getting her due.
Murray’s story — that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint — has fascinated me ever since my late colleague Karen Nickless brought the campaign to preserve Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, to our attention while I was at the National Trust.
Early in 2015 the Trust named the house a National Treasure, which helped inspire the first major gift to support the house’s restoration later that year. The Trust also worked with groups as diverse as the the Pauli Murray Project, the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, the National Park Service, and the Episcopal Church to support its 2017 listing as a National Historic Landmark. It ranks high among my preservation memories.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
In June, we attended a viewing of a new film on Pauli Murray as part of the 2021 AFI Docs Festival. That documentary — My name is Pauli Murray — is being released in general theatres this Friday, September 17th, and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on October 1st.
I had learned important pieces about Murray’s life and influence since my introduction back in 2014. But I was struck by how the filmmakers found new material to fill in the portrait of someone who is one of the most consequential — and least known — people of the 20th century.
“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.“
Ables notes that Murray’s story is a portrait of U.S. history, with all its omissions.
“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.
The movie’s trailer hints at what the viewer of this masterful film will learn.
Among the previously unknown sources the filmmakers uncovered were audio recordings of Murray reading the posthumously published Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage aloud for a friend.
In effect, Murray is able to tell us her own story, in her own voice.
Song in a Weary Throat is a powerful memoir, told with wit and energy. Murray begins in the floor of her kitchen in Baltimore, entangled in her mother’s billowing white skirts. Her memories of her parents are thin because her beloved mother died when she was four, and she went to segregated Durham, North Carolina, to live with her Aunt Pauline. It moves through her life as a self-described “rebel, instigator, and survivor, at times a nettle in the body politic, an opener-of-doors, and always a devout child of God and friend of mankind.” As Patricia Scott-Bell writes in a new introduction to the 2018 edition, Murray tried out more than a dozen titles for her work before she settled on a line from her epic poem “Dark Testament.”
“Hope is a song in a weary throat.”
This is autobiography about living with the audacity of hope. She was rejected for admission by the University of North Carolina because of her race, and four years later by Harvard Law School because of her gender. But the audacity of hope led Murray, whose personal motto was “Don’t get mad, get smart” to enter Howard Law School in 1941. She later added degrees from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law and Yale Law School. Yale named their newest residential college for Murray in 2016.
Murray’s autobiography is just one of several important books to be written or republished in recent years that deal with different aspects of the life of this remarkable American. In 2016 I wrote a review on this blog of Scott-Bell’s The Firebrand and the First Lady, which chronicles the unlikely friendship of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Rich in detail of the relationship built between Murray and ER (as the First Lady is referred to throughout the book), it is also an excellent read. The Firebrand and the First Lady speaks to how we can challenge and support each other in our work toward social justice and human wholeness.
These three works will help one gain a better portrait of one of America’s most enigmatic heroes. Because her legal, civil rights, and gender-equality work is consequential on so many fronts and levels, we may be tempted to downplay her move, later in life, into the priesthood. But Murray’s words when she left the practice of law in the early 1970s to become an Episcopal priest, describe the stakes.
She noted that most of the questions around inequality that we face as a nation are at their core moral issues that require reconciliation among all people. It is in community where we should affirm “the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”
More to come…