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Pauli Murray. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

A new documentary looks into the life of a little-known queer Black legal scholar who refused to surrender her own bus seat — years before Rosa Parks — and influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Driving the news: "My Name is Pauli Murray," set for release today on Amazon Prime, is the latest in a series of films examining the life of pioneering Black Americans who tackled systemic racism decades ago.

  • "Confrontation by typewriter" was her motto.

Why it matters: Through the people and institutions she touched, Murray helped shape American religion, society and jurisprudence.

  • Today, her memory is celebrated by trans and gender-nonconforming poets who see her work as groundbreaking.

Behind the scenes: The project was sparked after filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen noticed Murray’s name on the cover of Ginsburg's first women’s rights brief as a young litigator before the Supreme Court.

  • West and Cohen were deep into their 2018 documentary, "RBG," when they discovered that a 1965 law journal article co-written by Murray was one of Ginsburg’s inspirations.
A young Pauli Murray. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

What they're saying: "That was interesting to us...an African-American lawyer who played such a pivotal role in feminist legal history," West told Axios.

  • As she and Cohen dug into Murray's life, they were overwhelmed by the boxes and boxes of personal notes, documents, and photographs she said saved before her death in 1985.
  • They found a letter to (and response from) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt demanding an end to "Jim Crow." They also found that she worked with a young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on civil rights and poetry she wrote that had been shaped by the Harlem Renaissance.

Details: Born in Baltimore in 1910, Murray was taken in at 3 by her grandparents and aunt after her mother died.

  • Family oral histories say Murray refused to wear dresses — until her aunt cut a deal with her where she could wear pants the rest of the week if she agree to a dresses for church on Sundays.
  • She was graduated from Hunter College in 1933 with a degree in English and, dressed as a man, traveled the country by train during the Great Depression.
  • Murray eventually graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1944 at the top of her class. But she was turned away from a fellowship at Harvard Law School, which at the time only accepted men.

Murray went on to become California's first black deputy attorney general. Her 1951 book, "States’ Laws on Race and Color," caught the attention of Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer working on a school desegregation case.

  • She also was the first African American woman to serve as an Episcopal priest after the church changed its policies.

West said that the more she and Cohen uncovered about their subject, the more they thought, "My goodness! Look at this life. Look at the influence! Why don't we know about Pauli Murray?"

Between the lines: The film depicts Murray through various mental and physical struggles as she battled barriers.

  • She left few clues about her views on LGBTQ rights.
  • Some of her struggles likely stemmed from questioning her gender identity, something to which she alludes in letters, Cohen told Axios.
  • Murray asked a doctor at one point if testosterone would help her with an undisclosed ailment. "If you're going to doctor saying, 'I'm not a woman, I'm a man,' back in late-1930s, early 1940s, people's immediate diagnosis of that might be like, 'You're just completely crazy,' versus, like, 'You're trans and you need gender confirmation,'" Cohen said.
  • The filmmakers use she/her pronouns in the film but acknowledge Murray might have preferred other pronouns if alive today.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
13 mins ago - Technology

Intel CEO sees making own chips as a matter of national security

Pat Gelsinger. Photo: Axios on HBO

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is putting the pressure on the U.S. government to help subsidize chip manufacturing, insisting the current reliance on plants in Taiwan and Korea as "geopolitically unstable."

Why it matters: There is bipartisan support for funding the domestic semiconductor industry, but Congress has yet to sign the check. The Senate has passed the CHIPS Act that includes $52 billion in semiconductor investment, but it has yet to pass the House.

Updated 16 mins ago - World

17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children are among a group of 17 missionaries kidnapped in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, per a statement from Christian Aid Ministries Sunday.

The latest: "The group of 16 U.S citizens and one Canadian citizen includes five men, seven women, and five children," the Ohio-based group said. Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne on Sunday identified the 400 Mawozo gang as the group responsible, in a statement to AP.

Ina Fried, author of Login
2 hours ago - Technology

Intel CEO wants to compete against Apple

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger hasn't given up on the idea of the Mac once again using Intel chips, but he acknowledges it will probably be years before he gets that chance.

  • In the meantime, he is focused on powering Windows machines that give Apple CEO Tim Cook a run for his money.

Why it matters: In getting pushed out of the Mac, Intel not only lost a customer but picked up a new rival.

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