My Name is Pauli Murray | ★★★½ | Now playing in theaters | Streaming on Amazon Prime beginning Oct. 1 

Pauli Murray, the Durham-bred, Hillside High School graduate, attorney, poet, and priest whose childhood home still stands in the city’s West End, established a scholarly brand of activism decades ahead of her time.

Decades after Murray’s death in 1985, the world is finally acknowledging this remarkable activist-scholar whose 1944 law school thesis served as the philosophical premise of Thurgood Marshall’s arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, years later, which ruled that segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

In 1965, Murray co-authored “Jane Crow and The Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” a pioneering article that pointed to an array of laws across the United States that prohibited what women were allowed to do. In 1971, the brief that Murray wrote was cited by future associate justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Reed v. Reed, which ruled that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to women.

It’s truly the season of Pauli Murray, and this child of the Bull City is worthy of all praise.

This month, officials with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice announced that it had received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant money will go, in part, toward renovating the house, which is a National Historic Landmark.

Murray was born November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, the fourth of six children. Her mother, Agnes Fitzgerald Murray, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914 and her father, William Murray, was a high school teacher and principal who suffered from depression. He was eventually confined to a mental hospital, where he was murdered by a white prison guard in 1923. Murray then went to live with her aunt and namesake, Pauline Fitzerald, as well as her grandparents, Robert George and Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, in Durham.

The home that Murray was raised in—and which the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is now based in—was built by the Fitzgeralds in 1898.

Of course, Durham residents who have been paying attention already know that Murray’s legacy is part of the nation’s treasure chest: there are five murals in the West End and downtown district that honor various stages of a remarkable life well-lived.

“True Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of the individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together,” reads a Pauli Murray quote that is part of one mural, down the street from where the 91-minute film, My Name Is Pauli Murray, is showing at downtown Durham’s Carolina Theater. It also premieres on Amazon Prime on October 1.

Largely told in Murray’s own voice, the film chronicles a list of “firsts,” in the struggle for human rights, including her refusal to give up a seat on a segregated bus, 15 years before Rosa Parks.

Still, the documentary’s lasting impact gives particular voice and recognition to the struggles faced by Murray, who was Black and queer. Her triumphant quest serves as an inspiration for LGBTQ people everywhere, including Durham.

One of the leading voices in the film is Delores Chandler, the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center, whose self-description is as a gender non-conforming queer person of mixed race.

“When I came to know and learn about Pauli Murray I was so amazed,” Chandler says in the film. “I wanted to hold it so tightly, and also I was angry. I was so angry that in some ways I had been robbed of my history.”

No matter one’s gender identification, not knowing about the legacy of Pauli Murray anymore is akin to leaving out important pages in this nation’s history when we mouth the words, “with liberty and justice for all.”

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to