John Lewis: Get in the Way. Directed by Kathleen Dowdey. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2020. 54 minutes.
My Name Is Pauli Murray. Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Culver City, CA: Participant Film, 2021.
Insisting We Remember: John Lewis and Pauli Murray
John Lewis (1940-2020) is an icon for racial equality in the United States. As a leader in the youth-based civil rights organization SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and later as a congressman, Lewis instigated widespread rebellion against systemic inequality. Kathleen Dowdey’s biographical documentary John Lewis: Get in the Way chronicles Lewis’s lifetime commitment to social justice. In never-before-seen interviews recorded over twenty years, Lewis, his colleagues, his family, and fellow activists, reflect on what sustained his work in the tradition of nonviolent direct action.
A longstanding and varied grassroots political strategy, nonviolent direct action empowers ordinary people to protest oppressive systems while abstaining from violent retribution. For Lewis, this meant finding a way to “get it the way,” or to collectively develop an intolerance toward injustice and put his body on the line in direct-action resistance. In this sense, he credits his being elected to SNCC leadership not to his smarts or even oratory skills but to his persistent willingness to protest. As the film lauds Lewis’s heroism, it also spotlights the activism that made grassroots civil rights organizing possible. Civil rights veterans recall the ways that they used their bodies to wage war on Jim Crow laws and customs. For example, in 1955, for 381 days Montgomery residents walked miles to and from work—in rain, sleet, and snow—refusing to contribute economically to the city bus system’s white supremacist segregated-seating policies.
This organizing was strategic, rather than spontaneous, and the film reiterates this refreshing perspective throughout. As a college student, Lewis attended weekly workshops led by James Lawson where he received training in nonviolent direct action. Despite this ethic, the film does not sanitize the violence Lewis and other activists endured when fighting for voting rights, integrated public space, and basic dignities. Viewers encounter footage of white supremacist vigilantes spitting on, punching, kicking, and berating Black and white student protesters.
In a feminist classroom, educators may want to discuss gender diversity and Civil Rights leadership. Though the film touches on intergenerational and ideological intra-movement conflicts, gendered conflict abounded, too. Black women were devout and skilled leaders within the movement, but a masculinist view of national leadership barred fair representation in high-profile roles. Resources highlighting domestic workers’ leadership in the 1955 bus boycott and Barbara Ransby’s analysis of top-down, male-dominated, charismatic leadership frameworks could help examine how gender hierarchies have influenced and been resisted within Black freedom movements (Ransby 186; see also Robinson 1987 and Giardina 2018).
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, My Name Is Pauli Murray is an overdue documentary about human rights luminary Pauli Murray (1910-85). Murray was a legal theorist and civil rights architect as well as a poet, Episcopal priest, and cofounder of the National Organization for Women; and as a Black, queer, nonbinary person, they transformed twentieth-century conceptualizations of racial and gender equity.1 As the film shows, Murray boycotted segregation of buses twenty years before the Civil Rights Movement implemented this practice, and Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg consulted Murray’s thinking in their landmark antidiscrimination cases. Yet, several decades of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia have obscured Murray’s legacy, which she portends in her poem “Prophecy”: “I’ve been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness” (1970, 71). My Name Is Pauli Murray, therefore, also serves as a meditation on the power and process of remembering Murray’s life and legacy.
The film uplifts one fascinating element of Murray’s persona—an insistence on being remembered. In an opening scene, Murray’s great-niece Karen Ross walks through the archives of Harvard's women’s history library recalling Murray’s dying wish to have their papers archived there. These records are featured artfully throughout the film: Murray’s voice recordings of drafts of their autobiography become narration for the film; photographs and scrapbook pages animate Murray’s persona; and archived letters to doctors seeking gender-affirming care contextualize Murray’s struggle and tenacity in rethinking gender binaries. The repeated sonic refrain of clacking typewriter keys are a soundtrack for the “hot letters” Murray regularly sent off to politicians and movement leaders, calling out their hypocrisy in promoting democracy while upholding discriminatory policies.
The film also highlights commemorative action led by a cadre of historians, cultural workers, and contemporary social justice advocates. From school building renamings, to candlelit community events, to legal precedents, numerous posthumous remembrances edify Murray’s significance within US history and empower the change that Murray represents.
Importantly, the film provides nuanced discussion of Pauli Murray’s queer gender and sexuality, elements of Murray’s lived experience that directly influenced their forward-thinking politics. As Murray sought gender-affirmative care, they came to interrogate the construction of gender and race binaries and sought to dismantle the law’s instantiation of those binaries / structures. Furthermore, Murray’s rightful place in history defies the dehumanizing tendency to erase queer pasts. As the film explores its own approaches to portraying Murray, it opens questions about what it means to recover the past and to do so with care. Biographers discuss the process of selecting pronouns for a historical figure who lived before our language expanded to describe trans and nonbinary genders. A musical montage of ephemera—affectionate salutations in letters to and from Murray’s long-time partner, Irene Barlow—shines as the film’s successful effort to tenderly interpret Murray’s preserved material in service of queer representation. Murray’s insistence to be seen and heard is deeply personal and political.
Cited and Suggested Resources
SNCC Digital Gateway. n.d. SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University.
Chandler, Dolores. 2021. “Pauli Murray: Black Revolutionary.” Scalawag, January 29.
Cooper, Brittney C. 2017. “Queering Jane Crow: Pauli Murray’s Quest for an Unhyphenated Identity.” In Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, 87-113. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Giardina, Carol. 2018. “MOW to NOW: Black Feminism Resets the Chronology of the Founding of Modern Feminism.” Feminist Studies 44, no. 3: 736–65.
Murray, Pauli. 1970. Dark Testament: And Other Poems. Norwalk, CT: Silvermine.
------. 2018 (1987). Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. New York: Liveright.
“Resources about Pauli Murray.” n.d. Pauli Murray Center.
Ransby, Barbara. 2003. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
------. 2018. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. 1987. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Edited by David J Garrow. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Rosenberg, Rosalind. 2017. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thomas, Lava. 2018. Lava Thomas: Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. San Francisco: Rena Branstein Gallery.
Trans History, Linked. n.d. Digital Transgender Archive.
1 Throughout this essay, I use both she/her and they/them pronouns for Murray. She/her pronouns were the pronouns Murray most commonly and publicly, but not exclusively, used during Murray’s life. They/them pronouns act as gender-inclusive ways to signal the fact that there is no way to know how Murray would identify if given the language of a twenty-first-century understanding of gender. For more on Murray and pronoun choices, see “Context about Pronouns & Gender.”