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The Firebrand and the First Lady
Cover of The Firebrand and the First Lady
The Firebrand and the First Lady
Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
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Longlisted for the National Book Award
A groundbreaking book—two decades in the works—that tells the story of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist, granddaughter of a mulatto slave, and the first lady of the United States, whose ancestry gave her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, forged an enduring friendship that changed each of their lives and helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.
Pauli Murray first saw Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933, at the height of the Depression, at a government-sponsored, two-hundred-acre camp for unemployed women where Murray was living, something the first lady had pushed her husband to set up in her effort to do what she could for working women and the poor. The first lady appeared one day unannounced, behind the wheel of her car, her secretary and a Secret Service agent her passengers. To Murray, then aged twenty-three, Roosevelt's self-assurance was a symbol of women's independence, a symbol that endured throughout Murray's life.
Five years later, Pauli Murray, a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer, wrote a letter to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt protesting racial segregation in the South. The president's staff forwarded Murray's letter to the federal Office of Education. The first lady wrote back.
Murray's letter was prompted by a speech the president had given at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, praising the school for its commitment to social progress. Pauli Murray had been denied admission to the Chapel Hill graduate school because of her race.
She wrote in her letter of 1938:
"Does it mean that Negro students in the South will be allowed to sit down with white students and study a problem which is fundamental and mutual to both groups? Does it mean that the University of North Carolina is ready to open its doors to Negro students . . . ? Or does it mean, that everything you said has no meaning for us as Negroes, that again we are to be set aside and passed over . . . ?"
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Murray: "I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly . . . The South is changing, but don't push too fast."
So began a friendship between Pauli Murray (poet, intellectual rebel, principal strategist in the fight to preserve Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, cofounder of the National Organization for Women, and the first African American female Episcopal priest) and Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady of the United States, later first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women) that would last for a quarter of a century.
Drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts, and interviews, Patricia Bell-Scott gives us the first close-up portrait of this evolving friendship and how it was sustained over time, what each gave to the other, and how their friendship changed the cause of American social justice.
From the Hardcover edition.
Longlisted for the National Book Award
A groundbreaking book—two decades in the works—that tells the story of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist, granddaughter of a mulatto slave, and the first lady of the United States, whose ancestry gave her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, forged an enduring friendship that changed each of their lives and helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.
Pauli Murray first saw Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933, at the height of the Depression, at a government-sponsored, two-hundred-acre camp for unemployed women where Murray was living, something the first lady had pushed her husband to set up in her effort to do what she could for working women and the poor. The first lady appeared one day unannounced, behind the wheel of her car, her secretary and a Secret Service agent her passengers. To Murray, then aged twenty-three, Roosevelt's self-assurance was a symbol of women's independence, a symbol that endured throughout Murray's life.
Five years later, Pauli Murray, a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer, wrote a letter to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt protesting racial segregation in the South. The president's staff forwarded Murray's letter to the federal Office of Education. The first lady wrote back.
Murray's letter was prompted by a speech the president had given at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, praising the school for its commitment to social progress. Pauli Murray had been denied admission to the Chapel Hill graduate school because of her race.
She wrote in her letter of 1938:
"Does it mean that Negro students in the South will be allowed to sit down with white students and study a problem which is fundamental and mutual to both groups? Does it mean that the University of North Carolina is ready to open its doors to Negro students . . . ? Or does it mean, that everything you said has no meaning for us as Negroes, that again we are to be set aside and passed over . . . ?"
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Murray: "I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly . . . The South is changing, but don't push too fast."
So began a friendship between Pauli Murray (poet, intellectual rebel, principal strategist in the fight to preserve Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, cofounder of the National Organization for Women, and the first African American female Episcopal priest) and Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady of the United States, later first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women) that would last for a quarter of a century.
Drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts, and interviews, Patricia Bell-Scott gives us the first close-up portrait of this evolving friendship and how it was sustained over time, what each gave to the other, and how their friendship changed the cause of American social justice.
From the Hardcover edition.
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  • From the book 1

    "It Is the Problem of My People"

    The clatter of Pauli Murray's old typewriter bounced off the walls of her one-room Harlem apartment on December 6, 1938. Working at breakneck speed, she stopped only to look over a line in her letter or take a drag from her ever-present cigarette. Although she was only five-foot-two and weighed 105 pounds, she hammered the keys with the focus of a prizefighter. She had been forced to move three times because neighbors found the noise intolerable.

    The catalyst for Murray's current agitation was Franklin Roosevelt's speech at the University of North Carolina the day before. It was his first address since the 1938 midterm elections and the fourth visit to the university by an incumbent president. The reports of his isolation at his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia, and the arrangements for radio broadcasts to Europe and Latin America had sparked international interest in his speech.

    Thousands lined the motorcade path to UNC in the drenching rain, holding handmade signs and flags, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fifty-six-year-old president in his open car. When it became apparent that there would be no break in the downpour, organizers moved the festivities from Kenan Stadium to the brand-new Woollen Gymnasium. There, in an over-capacity crowd of ten thousand, a man fainted from the swelter. Many people went to other campus buildings to listen to the broadcast. Countless numbers stood outside the gym in the rain. Before FDR spoke, the university band played "Hail to the Chief," school officials awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree, and an African American choir sang spirituals.

    Under the glare of klieg lights, the warmth of his academic regalia, and the weight of his steel leg braces, the president made his way to the flag-draped platform. He paused often during his twenty-five-minute address for roaring applause, wiping his face with the handkerchief he slipped in and out of his pocket, gripping the lectern to maintain his balance. He praised the university for its "liberal teaching" and commitment to social progress. He declared his faith in youth and democracy. He urged Americans to embrace "the kind of change" necessary "to meet new social and economic needs."

    Having listened to the broadcast the day before, Murray underlined passages in the speech from the New York Times front-page story "Roosevelt Urges Nation to Continue Liberalism." The "contradiction" between the president's rhetoric and her experience of the South made her boil. She would never forget the day a bus driver told her to "relieve" herself in "an open field" because the public toilets were for whites only. Insulted, she rode in agony for two hours, not knowing if there would be toilet facilities for blacks at the next stop.

    Murray wondered if it mattered to the president that the "liberal institution" that had just granted him an honorary doctorate, and of which he claimed to be a "proud and happy" alumnus, barred black students from its hallowed halls and confined those blacks who came to hear him to a segregated section. Did he understand the psychological wounds or the economic costs of segregation? And how could he rationally or morally associate a whites-only admissions policy with liberalism or social progress? Having applied to UNC's graduate program in sociology a month before FDR's visit, Murray aimed to see just how liberal the school was.

    ...

    exacerbating murray's frustration with the president was his previous condemnation of lynching as "a vile form of collective murder" and his recent silence during a thirty-day Senate filibuster of the Wagner–Van Nuys bill that would have...
About the Author-
  • Patricia Bell-Scott is professor emerita of women's studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia. Her previous books include Life Notes: Personal Writing by Contemporary Black Women; Flat-footed Truths: Telling Black Women's Lives, and Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, which won the Letitia Woods Memorial Book Prize. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband, Charles V. Underwood Jr.



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 7, 2015
    Bell-Scott (Life Notes), professor emerita of women’s studies and family science at the University of Georgia, deftly reveals two women’s crucial involvement in the struggle for civil rights. Pauli Murray, a young African American woman, crossed paths with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934 when Murray was living at Camp Tera, a New Deal facility for unemployed women. The burgeoning professional relationship between these two smart, strong-minded, and ambitious women developed into genuine affection. They shared similar ideas about social justice, and each chose her own course of action. The fascinating, complex Murray takes center stage in this absorbing historical page-turner. In the decades before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and Rosa Parks’s 1955 bus protest, Murray challenged racial segregation at the University of North Carolina (1938) and on public transportation in Virginia (1940). As a law student in the early 1940s, she battled gender discrimination, foreshadowing her co-founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966. Until Roosevelt’s death in 1962, she supported Murray’s various projects and helped the younger woman with her career goals. Murray’s considerable achievements weren’t dependent on Roosevelt’s assistance; Bell-Scott brilliantly shows that the friendship equally enriched both women. Illus.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from November 15, 2015
    A significant new exploration of the enormously important friendship between two activist crusaders in advancing the cause of civil rights for blacks and women. Although the Baltimore-born black lawyer Pauli Murray (1910-1985) and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) exchanged more than 300 letters during their lifetimes, met occasionally, and worked in tandem on issues of social justice, there has not been a proper study of their mutually influential friendship until now. In this stellar work of scholarship, Bell-Scott (Emerita, Women's Studies and Family Science/Univ. of Georgia; Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women's Lives, 1998, etc.) has sifted through their correspondence for evidence of their evolving ideas on black-white issues and how each took the measure of the other while working doggedly to bring down social and professional barriers. Eleanor tirelessly promoted integration despite the public caution that her husband demonstrated, and she first met Murray in 1933 as a college graduate attending Camp Tera (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), a pilot facility for struggling unemployed women that Eleanor had pushed to create during the Depression. Subsequently, Murray would go on to get advanced law degrees and work as deputy California attorney general and, later, as a professor. All the while, Murray idolized Eleanor ("the most visible symbol of autonomy and therefore the role model of women of my generation") and frequently wrote to her--or to the president, sending her a copy of the letter. She laid out in no uncertain terms the plight of the African-American, "the most oppressed, most misunderstood and most neglected section of your population," especially in the South, where she had lived as an orphan. From getting anti-lynching legislation passed to pressuring institutions of higher learning to integrate, the two women bolstered or chided each other candidly in their letters involving issues which Eleanor frequently referred to in her newspaper column. With generous excerpts from the letters, Bell-Scott shines a bright light on this significant relationship. A fresh look at Eleanor Roosevelt and a fascinating exploration of a cherished, mutually beneficial friendship.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2015
    Professor emerita at the University of Georgia and cofounding editor of "SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women", Bell-Scott treats the 28-year friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and black lesbian Pauli Murray, the granddaughter of a slave, who became a lawyer, activist, Episcopal priest, and poet. Her views on race in America helped shape those of the First Lady, which in turn helped shape policy within FDR's administration.

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol

    Excitement about Patricia Bell-Scott's THE FIREBRAND AND THE FIRST LADY "Bell-Scott meticulously chronicles Eleanor Roosevelt's and Pauli Murray's boundary-breaking friendship, telling each remarkable woman's story within the context of the crises of the times . . . sharply detailed and profoundly illuminating . . . Bell-Scott's groundbreaking portrait of these two tireless and innovative champions of human dignity adds an essential and edifying facet to American history." -- Donna Seaman, Booklist (Starred Review) "Deftly reveals two women's crucial involvement in the struggle for civil rights . . . An absorbing historical page-turner . . . Bell-Scott brilliantly shows that the friendship equally enriched both women." -- PW, Starred Review "The extraordinary life of Pauli Murray, activist, poet, teacher, priest and "firebrand" for all seasons, is beautifully detailed in Patricia Bell-Scott's book. Pauli clearly won the heart of Eleanor Roosevelt as both women sought to advance the cause of Negro rights--indeed all human rights---during their lives. Their history together reverberates today as the fight for equality continues, making this book important reading for all of us." -- Jane Alexander, award winning actress, "Eleanor and Franklin" and "The White House Years" "Bell-Scott shines a bright light on this significant relationship. A fresh look at Eleanor Roosevelt and a fascinating exploration of a cherished, mutually beneficial friendship." --Kirkus, Starred Review "What an exquisite book! Patricia Bell-Scott has done the painstaking research on two women who in many respects couldn't have been more different, but in at least one respect -- their unique friendship -- shared a passion for truth . . . The particular lens through which Bell-Scott has examined the Struggle for Social Justice is their incredible friendship, filled with initial shyness and formality, spurred on by the experiences of injustice, ripened through hard work, including difficult exchanges, and brought to fruition in the lasting legacies of each. As the Episcopal Church, other religious groups, and the entire country continues to deal with the evils of racism and their lasting and destructive effects, Patricia Bell-Scott has given us a book that will inspire and give hope to all who read it." -- The Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Los Angeles. "Bold, fast-paced, and vividly written, Patricia Bell-Scott's dual portrait of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt significantly enhances the story of two luminous activists who learned much from each other across the color line. This splendid book gives us significant hope for the future as we continue to struggle for justice, peace and freedom." -- Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt, I, II, III forthcoming "Presented against the backdrop of social activism, the dual life stories of the unheralded Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt told in Patricia Bell-Scott's important book should inspire all readers. Rarely has a friendship been dissected and analyzed with such verve and open-eyed compassion." --Wil Haygood, author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America "A fresh look at a fascinating friendship between two vivid individuals from very different worlds -- as well as a chronicle of the age-old conflict between the highest ideals and the art of the possible." -- Geoffrey C. Ward, author of The Roosevelts: An intimate History "

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Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
Patricia Bell-Scott
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