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Q&A: Pauli Murray Center on new documentary "My Name is Pauli Murray"

Social activist, priest and attorney Pauli Murray has had a radical impact on modern notions of equality and social justice. Despite this, Durham native Murray is not the household name that Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks may be. But, the Pauli Murray Center and the new documentary, told in Murray’s own words, are trying to change that. 

Released in theaters Sept. 17 and on Prime Video Oct. 1, “My Name is Pauli Murray” traces the influential life of Pauli Murray from their birth in Baltimore to their final years as an ordained Episcopal priest. A Black activist who critiqued societal norms, Murray stood decades ahead of their time. 

Last week, The Chronicle sat down with Barbara Lau, Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center, and Rosita Stevens-Holsey, Pauli Murray’s niece and Pauli Murray Center Board Member to discuss the Center’s and the film’s efforts to keep Murray’s story alive. 

The Chronicle: I would love to start by asking what was the Pauli Murray Center’s involvement in the film?

Barbara Lau: We were a location for the film. There were some scenes shot on the lawn of Pauli Murray Center with some local high school students where Rosita [Stevens-Holsey] was talking a little bit about Pauli’s life and Pauli’s invitation to young people to live a life of activism.

TC: Something that struck me by the end of the film was the fact that I felt like I wasn’t aware of Pauli Murray’s life, and I’d love to talk about why you think the public is not aware of this story.

Rosita Stevens-Holsey: Historically, minority persons who have done extraordinary things have not been included in the official American history. So when you use textbooks, either their contributions are minimized or excluded. If you saw Black, Brown, or Indigenous people, it was often from the standpoint of something negative they have done, as opposed to all the thousands and millions who have contributed to the history of this country. I think that is changing.

BL: And, I think that the calls to address these systematic issues that shape who gets lifted up, there’s some impact there. Not just in a way to contribute to what is the American story, but completely reshaping what is the American story and what American history is. As we catch up to Pauli Murray, as we begin to see a glimmer of the world in which a Pauli Murray would be celebrated, lifted up, we’re seeing more and more stories like Pauli Murray. What we are seeing, just more recently about Pauli Murray, is an awareness of, well, if we didn’t know about Pauli Murray, who else didn’t we know about and how do we reshape the system so that knowledge is lifted up and is more accessible to people?” 

TC: And to continue on this idea of telling Pauli Murray’s story, what is the mission or goal of the Pauli Murray Center itself?

BL: The core of our mission is lifting up the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, and the Pauli Murray Center is anchored by Pauli’s childhood home, built in 1898 by their grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald. We are committed that there is always a real place in the world where people could come and find Pauli Murray’s story and be inspired by the story. And we are committed to always telling stories like Pauli’s, of people that haven’t been lifted up. And, for us, right now, that is a focus on Durham history, the history of the West End neighborhood and the history of other people who have shaped Durham. 

TC: What portions of the film were you most excited for audiences to see?

RSH: I had no idea what to expect. As I tried to write a book for children [on Murray’s life], it became clear to me that it’s very difficult to take someone who had so many different skills and achieved so much in very different ways and actualize it. When the movie was coming out, I was spellbound when I heard her voice because I had heard her voice hundreds of times. It really caught me off guard.

TC: Rosita, I would love it if you could talk more about life with your aunt. 

RSH: One of the things that I always thought about her was how humble she was. She never boasted about anything she did, who she knew or really unusual things she had been involved in. She never complained about her struggles, how many walls she had run into in trying to do things, and the efforts she’d made. But, also she was so inspiring. She persisted. She never seemed to give up. She worked hard all of the time. And, she would help anyone, to the degree that she did not need or want fame or fortune or notoriety for it.

TC: I was shocked by the quantity of writings currently housed at Harvard. It must have been such a feat to choose what facets of Murray’s life to emphasize in a ninety minute film.

BL: It just means there is more there for people to look at. Pauli Murray died in 1985, yet there continue to be books published about Pauli Murray and Pauli Murray’s own work is republished. It’s really exciting that young scholars, creatives, and educators are using Pauli Murray’s story to talk about these larger systemic issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I think Pauli would want that. 

“My Name is Pauli Murray” released on Prime Video Oct. 1. 

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