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Pauli Murray Should Be a Household Name. A New Film Shows Why.

Though she lived humbly, Murray, who called her preferred method of persuasion “confrontation by typewriter,” was long aware of her own exceptionalism. She published a memoir in 1956 about her family’s complicated, multiracial history, and held teaching positions across the country and in Ghana, advancing views on how to attain equity. But each step toward a broader audience, a bigger platform, was hard-won. Like Hill, Murray was a professor at Brandeis University — but Murray had to fight for tenure, the documentary shows, even though she was the first Black person to receive Yale Law School’s most advanced degree, doctor of juridical science.

In 2017, Yale named a residence hall after Murray, but Hill noted that when she herself was at Yale Law in the late 1970s, she couldn’t recall Murray’s name even being mentioned. “I chalk the near erasure of her contributions as an activist, author, scholar — of law, African studies, African American studies, and gender studies — to sexism and racism combined and separately,” Hill said.

Murray was a nomad. She went “wherever her cause took her,” said Karen Rouse Ross, her great-niece. After college, Murray, who often dressed androgynously, hopped trains, then joined the labor movement. Settling into life as an itinerant activist and lawyer, Murray transported enough books and papers to fill floor-to-ceiling shelves and a wall of filing cabinets. In her 70s, living in an apartment in Baltimore, Murray kept up the habit of typing away on her Remington into the wee hours, books piled on the floor. “She had a white coffee mug like you would get at a diner somewhere, constantly filled with black coffee, and she smoked unfiltered cigarettes,” Ross said. “That’s who she was, all night long.” When Murray’s papers were donated to Harvard, they filled 141 boxes.

Talleah Bridges McMahon, a producer of the film, was shocked when she started sorting through them. Instead of the drafts of speeches and other public-facing documents she thought she’d find, there was a trove of private correspondence between Murray and her inner circle, including doctors. “There were complete conversations,” she said, and decades of journals. Some had pages ripped out or words blacked out. “These are curated records,” McMahon said. “The more I saw that, the more I understood that everything we were seeing is what Pauli wanted people to see.”

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