Pages: Patricia Bell-Scott’sThe Firebrand and the First Lady
Writer: Caroline Gray
Editor: Rachel Hurn
Patricia Bell-Scott’s new book, The Firebrand and the First Lady, unearths the relationship between two seemingly disparate people who found a lasting, fulfilling friendship in a shared dedication to divergence from convention.
A devoted individualist, intellectual and civil rights advocate, Pauli Murray was quick to express her fiery sentiments on the political and social climate. As an African American granddaughter of a slave who was openly attracted to other women, Murray refused to accept the discrimination placed on all aspects of her identity.
On December 6, 1938, Murray penned an audacious letter to President Roosevelt in response to a speech he gave at the University of North Carolina, an all-white institution that had rejected her application for graduate school on the basis of her race. She challenged him to better understand what it is truly like to be a black person living in segregation, and to understand why, no matter the content of the speech, speaking at the university was in opposition to his proposed liberal stance. To ensure her voice was heard, she sent a copy to Mrs. Roosevelt as well. Thirteen days later, Murray received a response from the First Lady, addressed to “My dear Miss Murray.” She wrote: “I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly.” Although Murray was not interested in practicing patience on this matter, she appreciated a response under Eleanor’s own signature.
What could have been one letter to the White House turned out to be a sustained partnership in pursuit of social change. Pauli Murray refused to accept the status quo and consistently challenged institutions and questioned authority—resulting in many letters directed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication to her fellow Americans, and her own investment in the quest for equality, ensured many responses. Communication turned into correspondence which evolved into a lifelong friendship spanning decades.
With women treated as second class citizens and people of color dehumanized, together, Murray and Roosevelt occupied the front lines on a relentless fight for social justice. Murray would later reflect on the First Lady, who at this point, was also a dear friend: “I learned by watching her in action over a period of three decades that each of us is culture-bound by the era in which we live, and that the greatest challenges to the individual is to try to move to the very boundaries of our historical limitations.’” Roosevelt’s independent spirit, bravery, and intellect made her a mentor, ally, and beacon of hope to Murray.
Like Mrs. Roosevelt, Murray moved far beyond her contemporaries. Bell-Scott pays proper homage to a life gone under the radar. Pauli Murray was a force to be reckoned with. She was a writer, a lawyer, a teacher, and always an activist. She played a pivotal role in preserving the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women. She wrote poetry and battled to get innocent black men off death row. She even became the first African American female Episcopal priest.
She may have been small in stature, but Pauli Murray “spoke with the conviction of a veteran, often standing atop a desk chair in practical sailor pants, drawing people of conscience to the cause.” It’s no surprise that early on in their correspondence, Mrs. Roosevelt bestowed Murray with a fitting sobriquet: “Firebrand.”
Caroline Gray is at home wherever her duffle bag is. Her literary hero is Jack Kerouac and her style icon is Georgia O’Keefe.
Hardcover, 480 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date published: February 2, 2016