Few people can truly be called trailblazers. Many well-known leaders become well-known by building upon the foundations laid by those who came before them. Sometimes it takes a while for true trailblazers to receive the recognition they deserve because so many subsequent folks either knowingly or unknowingly built upon their work. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be using this space to highlight some of the trailblazers whose names are worth knowing.
Pauli Murray’s trailblazing life is the subject of a new documentary that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival just last week. Directed by the same team that won accolades for their documentary RBG about the life and work of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Name is Pauli Murray tells the story of a writer, lawyer, priest, and poet who was ahead of history. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen first learned of Pauli Murray while working on RBG. While other well-known lawyers drew heavily on Murray’s groundbreaking work for racial and gender equality, only Ginsburg cited Murray’s contributions.
Born November 20, 1910, Pauli Murray helped lay the groundwork and paved the way for future Civil Rights Leaders. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Murray was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Richmond, Virginia. Twenty years before the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s, Murray organized sit-in protests at segregated restaurants in Washington D.C.
Pauli was the first woman to attend Howard University law school, graduating first in the class. During the final year in law school, Pauli wrote a paper that was later used (but not credited) by Thurgood Marshall and his team to successfully argue the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregated schools were illegal. Pauli befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, partnered with Betty Friedan to found the National Organization for Women, and worked tirelessly to advocate for racial and gender equality. You can read more of her and her phenomenal accomplishments HERE or HERE while you wait for the documentary to become widely available.
Among her numerous accomplishments, I want to highlight one final trailblazing move Pauli Murray made in 1977. After a lifetime of advocating for justice and equality through the justice system and fighting gender discrimination to receive tenure at Brandeis University, Murray gave up her academic and law career to enter seminary—a move that surprised even her closest friends and family members. Three years later she became the first African American woman ordained to the priesthood by the Episcopal church. For the last seven years of her life, Pauli served a parish in Washington D.C. ministering to the sick.
In an interview, the directors of the My Name is Pauli made the claim that this move into the ministry didn’t disavow “everything she accomplished through the law,” but rather was a response to the backlash people had to legislation that worked to breakdown racial inequalities. They observed how “there are limitations to the law. You can change what’s legally required, that doesn’t mean things will change on the ground….Pauli started to see… that maybe you need to change hearts and minds—that just changing it legally is not enough. So Pauli switches gears to say I actually need to get to the soul of people. That’s what we really need to address.”
In the spirit of Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, I pray we too work to get to the soul of people—to change hearts and minds as we advocate for a more just, equal, and peaceful world.