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Racial Justice Icon, the Rev. Pauli Murray, Takes Center Stage

Photo courtesy Pauli Murray Foundation

Submitted by Dent Neilson, member of the Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation – Visual & Performing Arts Subcommittee.

July 1 is set aside in "Holy Women, Holy Men" as the feast day for the Rev. Pauli Murray, a racial justice icon. She was an Episcopal priest, lawyer, and Civil Rights warrior who is now the subject of a soon-to-be released documentary.

If the name Pauli Murray is as unknown to you as it was to me, please take a few moments to learn more about this extraordinary and groundbreaking advocate for racial and gender equality.

Anne Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910. Her mother died when Pauli was four and her father was murdered in a state mental hospital when she was 13.

Despite those obstacles, Murray graduated with honors from Hunter College (NYC) in 1933. When she was denied admission to attend law school at the all-white University of North Carolina, she became an activist for civil rights. In March of 1940, a full 15 years before Rosa Parks’ famous act of civil disobedience, she was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia. In 1941, she began classes at Howard University School of Law with the intent of becoming a civil rights attorney and developed a life-long friendship and correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt. Murray later became the first African- American woman to receive a Doctor of Judicial Science degree from Yale Law School and eventually, the first African American, female Episcopal priest. Murray lived a life dedicated to justice and her writings about Civil Rights legislation were referred to by both Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Thurgood Marshall. President John Kennedy appointed her to the Commission on the Status of Women, and she was a founding member of the National Organization of Women.

As an African American, nonbinary, poet, lawyer, feminist, priest, lesbian, author, and scholar, Pauli Murray faced discrimination on multiple fronts, yet always advocated for the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in her ongoing battle for equality.

The documentary is entitled “My Name is Pauli Murray” and features interviews with Justice Ruth Ginsburg and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. It will be released on Amazon Prime streaming in October 2021. Produced and directed by Oscar nominated directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, “My Name is Pauli Murray” premiered in February at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. In the interim, you can find many short documentaries about Pauli Murray on YouTube if you would like to become familiar with her. I am thankful that I did.

“O Lord, When our eyes do not see the gravity of racial justice, shake us from our slumber and open our eyes. O Lord, when out of fear we are frozen into inaction, give us the spirit of bravery. O Lord, when we try our best, but say the wrong things, give us a spirit of humility. Amen” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


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