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The Firebrand and the First Lady, by Patricia Bell-Scott.

September 25, 2015

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, by Patricia Bell-Scott.   Knopf (2016), 464 pages.

4 stars

Carolina.  When Franklin Roosevelt spoke glibly about the liberality of the South, she responded with a long elegant letter confronting him with what it was like to be a Negro. And she sent a copy to his wife. Eleanor responded by paraphrasing some of Pauli’s points in her daily newspa

A fine dual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, a younger African American activist, the causes they both supported, and the times in which they lived.

The friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray was an unlikely one. Murray was 26 years younger than Roosevelt: she was black, working-class, impatient and radical. Yet Roosevelt accepted her angry confrontations and mentored her, and slowly they developed into valued friends. This book is an account of that friendship.

Patricia Bell-Scott is a distinguished scholar, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia. She has played a key role in developing Black Women’s Studies, co-editing the anthology, Some of Us Were Brave, and founding  Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. The depth of her research and insights are evident in this book as she moves the focus back and forth between the two women and the larger picture of the social and political forces at work in their world. She has a scholar’s dedication to getting the facts right at the same time she conveys them with grace for non-scholars.

Most of us know something about Eleanor Roosevelt, yet Bell-Scott enlarged my understanding of her character and actions. Pauli Murphy is less well known. She was a mullato woman from North Carolina, raised into a family that honored education. She had experienced the pain and danger of racism up close. In 1938 she was working as a teacher in the WPA and applying to attend grad school at the University of North Carolina. When Franklin Roosevelt spoke glibly about the liberality of the South, she responded with a long elegant letter confronting him with what it was like to be a Negro. And she sent a copy to his wife. Eleanor responded by paraphrasing some of Pauli’s points in her daily newspaper column. Pauli would not be admitted to UNC, but her conversations with the First Lady had begun.

Pauli Murray’s life was always a turbulent one full of disappointments. The NAACP refused to take on her case against UNC; perhaps because her politics were to the left of theirs or perhaps because the fact she was a lesbian had become known. She was hired by small organizations including one to save a sharecropper from the death penalty in Virginia. She went on to study law where her ability was recognized, but she was repeatedly hindered by either her race or her sex. Eleanor Roosevelt initially urged her to tame her passions. Gradually, however, their friendship became more equal as each supported and cared for the other as individuals. Both women were very sensitive and compassionate and curious about how others viewed the world.

As Bell-Scott traces the actions and accomplishments of both women, she gives a detailed picture of the range of efforts for civil rights and fairness for women during the 1940s and 1950s. Often their actions seemed minor or ineffectual at the time but they were critical in establishing the movements of the 1960s. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor went on to champion international cooperation and the United Nations while Pauli Murray continued her legal scholarship and became one of the first women to be an Episcopal priest. They worked together on President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status for Women.

The Firebrand and the First Lady is both deeply enjoyable and very informative. In it we can see real individuals in action and about to transcend their differences. I recommend it strongly to many readers.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tish permalink
    October 22, 2015 8:53 am

    Nice write up – the only problem is her name is Pauli Murray, not Murphy. Please fix it, as I would like to share this piece with my colleagues. Thanks!

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