Film focuses on Durham civil rights leader

Durham-bred Pauli Murray’s pioneering sit-ins captured in Pittsboro

aramos@newsobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 

  • About Pauli Murray Murray (1910-1985) was a nationally and internationally known advocate for human rights and social justice. She grew up in Durham’s West End neighborhood. She was the first woman to graduate at the top of her class from Howard Law School. She advised First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on civil rights and co-founded the National Organization for Women. Before her death in 1985, Murray was the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.

— Before there was a Martin Luther King Jr., before there was a Rosa Parks, there was a Pauli Murray.

Few know that Murray was hosting lunch counter sit-ins and refusing to sit in segregated buses a decade before the world even heard of Parks and King.

But that could all change in the near future thanks to a documentary project in the works chronicling Murray’s lifetime fight to gain equal rights for women and blacks across the social spectrum.

Boston-based Time Travel Productions began filming a trailer for the documentary Sunday in Pittsboro at the S&T Soda Shoppe.

“Pauli Murray is an inspiring figure whose story has gone untold,” Margo Guernsey said. “So the more I learned about her the more I was inspired. There should be a film about Pauli, and no one was doing it.”

Filming in the Triangle is important because Murray is from Durham, Guernsey said. But the most important reason for shooting the documentary is to show how Murray was ahead of her time, she said.

While studying at Howard University School of Law, Murray was part of the NAACP’s local chapter subcommittee that staged sit-ins at lunch counters, then called the “stool-sitting technique,” Guernsey said.

“They would sit there even when they were told to leave,” she said. “These were woman at Howard who were leading this lunch counter movement a full 15 years before Greensboro,” where N.C. A&T students staged a famous sit-in in 1960.

It’s this long-ago and little-known scene that Guernsey brought to life on Sunday.

On the second floor of the S&T’s Soda Shoppe, it’s the early 1940s. The shoppe is doubling for Washington, D.C., where the sit-in protest took place. A white woman strolls past the wooden lunch counter and past the wooden stools to tell two black women they have to leave.

One of the women, with short hair, bears it stoically. Then, she reaches into her satchel, takes out a book and begins to read. Her tablemate does the same. The short-haired woman is Rasool Jahan, of Raleigh, acting the role of Murray.

A few minutes later, two white police officers tell Jahan the same message. Still Jahan and the other three extras acting as protesters don’t budge. Seconds drag on, and still the women don’t move.

‘A special human being’

With that, the scene is over. In real life, Murray and the other protesters would stay a few minutes more and then picket in front of the restaurant, shutting it down.

Jahan marvels at Murray’s courage.

“I would like to think that I could be that kind of person,” Jahan said. “I don’t know if I would have been that strong. It takes a special human being to endure that.”

Jahan echoes Guernsey’s sentiments. “She just wanted to live her life and she wasn’t allowed to not just because of her race but her gender,” Jahan said.

Denied but defiant

In 1938, Murray was denied admission to the University of North Carolina because she was black and female. Murray was undaunted.

Eventually she would graduate with a law degree from Howard University Law School and go on to publish “States’ Laws on Race and Color.” Her work was used in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Board of Education that led to the desegregation of schools.

Murray’s great-niece Karen Ross traveled from Lake Wylie, S.C., to watch the filming and wound up landing a small part as a protester.

“It’s a little bit emotional for me,” Ross said. “Before she died she put me in charge of her legacy. She left me the responsibility of getting her story out, and here we are 30 years later, and it’s finally happening.”

Ross said for her, she just wants the full scope of her great-aunt’s contributions to be acknowledged by a larger audience.

“I’m grateful the would is beginning to look at her contributions and recognize it,” Ross said. “In some way, she’s reached everyone’s life.”

Long journey ahead

Time Travel Productions has partnered with the nonprofit Documentary Educational Resources to raise money to pay for the documentary, whose working title is “A Song of Hope: The Life Story of Pauli Murray.”

The documentary’s trailer is expected to be completed in December and will be available on Time Travel Production’s website. The trailer will be used to raise funds, and it will likely take could take two to three years to complete. For more information about the documentary, visit

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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