The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

by Patricia Bell-Scott


View All Available Formats & Editions


A finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and longlisted for the National Book Award, The Firebrand and the First Lady is the riveting history, two decades in the making, of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist and the first lady of the United States forged an enduring friendship that helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.

In 1938, the twenty-eight-year-old Pauli Murray wrote a letter to the President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, protesting racial segregation in the South. Eleanor wrote back. So began a friendship that would last for a quarter of a century, as Pauli became a lawyer, principal strategist in the fight to protect Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a co-founder of the National Organization of Women, and Eleanor became a diplomat and first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Lillian Smith Book Award
Finalist Georgia Author of the Year
Nominated Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679446521
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

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 Writings by Contemporary Black Women, Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women’s Lives, and Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers & Daughters, which won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband, Charles V. Underwood Jr.

Read an Excerpt


“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 made lynching a federal offense. After the bill died, FDR proposed that a standing committee of Congress or the attorney general investigate “lynchings and incidents of mob violence.”

The black press lashed out against his political maneuvering. The New York Amsterdam News condemned him for keeping “his tongue in his cheek!” The Chicago Defender called him “an artful dodger.” The Louisiana Weekly, predicting that blacks would abandon the Democratic Party, declared, “You’re too late, Mr. President, and what you say is NOTHING.”

Murray understood that FDR’s reticence on anti-lynching legislation was an attempt to placate conservative politicians from the South, where whites lynched blacks with impunity. Her introduction to politics had begun as a preschooler, reading newspaper headlines to her grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, a Union army veteran whose injury in the Civil War cost him his vision in his old age. Robert, originally from Pennsylvania, settled in North Carolina after the war to teach ex-slaves. He had also nurtured his granddaughter’s intellect and her love of African American literature and history. That this year marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation made the president’s inaction even more objectionable to Murray. Since 1863, more than three thousand blacks had been lynched, and at least seventy of these murders had taken place during FDR’s presidency.

Murray’s indignation was rooted in bone-chilling stories she had heard as a child of racial brutality and the Klansmen who circled her grandfather’s property nightly on horseback, threatening to shut down his school for blacks. Ever brave, Robert had kept “his musket loaded” and the school door open. Murray had her own stories, too.

When she was six years old and on her way to fetch water from a community well, she and a neighbor came upon a group of blacks gathered around the body of young John Henry Corniggins, sprawled near a patch of thorny shrubs. Murray saw “his feet first, the white soles sticking out of the grass and caked with mud, then his scratched brown legs.” His eyes were open. Blood seeped through a bullet hole in his shirt near his heart. John Henry lay motionless as large green flies wandered over his face and into his mouth. Nearby, a solitary “buzzard circled.” Murray raced home, trembling in a cold sweat. The word among blacks was that a white man had assumed John Henry was stealing watermelons and shot him. No evidence of theft was found near the boy’s body. No one was arrested for his murder.

Six years later, violence touched Murray’s family when a white guard at Maryland’s Hospital for the Negro Insane murdered her father. At the funeral, she could hardly believe that the “purple” bloated body in the gray casket was her once proud father. She was horrified by the sight of his mangled head, which had been “split open like a melon” during an autopsy “and sewed together loosely with jagged stitches crisscrossing the blood-clotted line of severance.”


the fight over anti-lynching legislation was but one of Franklin Roosevelt’s worries. His attempt to purge Congress of his enemies had failed, and a coalition of anti–New Deal Republicans and Democrats had emerged. Despite the continuing economic depression, important legislation remained deadlocked. Frightening developments loomed on the world stage, as well. Under Adolf Hitler, Germany’s aggression in Europe escalated with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. During Kristallnacht, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of Jews were stripped of their citizenship, property, and business rights and sent to concentration camps.

As Murray pounded out her letter to the president, she recalled Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Camp Tera. Murray had been following reports about the first lady, listening to her radio broadcast, and reading her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” since it had begun publication, on December 30, 1935. In it, ER chronicled get-togethers with family and friends, meetings with public figures, impressions of what she saw during her travels, and her opinions on a range of cultural and political matters. Writing the column six days a week and meeting her duties as first lady, which frequently went past midnight, required her to compose on the go. After one day-long visit to Camp Jane Addams (as Camp Tera had been renamed, in 1936, in honor of the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize), Tommy sat her typewriter on a rock near the Bear Mountain Bridge so that ER could dictate her copy and meet her deadline.

Southern segregation made ER uncomfortable, and she did not enjoy going to FDR’s Warm Springs cottage, despite the delight he took in the place. She did not accompany the president to UNC, but two weeks earlier, she had attended the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, on her own. SCHW was an interracial gathering of liberals who met to discuss health, economics, housing, labor, race relations, voting rights, opportunities for young people, and agricultural issues affecting the region. The conferees included a mix of labor, religious, youth, and civil rights activists, politicians, government administrators, journalists, educators, and representatives from organizations affiliated with the socialist and Communist movements.

ER was the most celebrated attendee, and her presence drew the national press. Of her whirlwind schedule, a New York Times reporter noted, “Mrs. Roosevelt arrived at 5 o’clock this morning . . . and rested until 8 o’clock and thereafter in rapid succession held a press conference, visited several institutions, spoke informally to an afternoon session meeting on youth problems and tonight gave an address on ‘Democracy in Education.’ ” Seven thousand people, nearly half of them black, jammed into the city auditorium to hear her speak about the importance of “universal education” and the contribution each citizen makes to the nation, “regardless of nationality or race.” She fielded questions for the better part of an hour.

The first lady’s participation at the SCHW was historic. However, her skillful circumvention of a local ordinance requiring segregated seating was what interested Murray most. When city officials learned that conferees were mingling freely during sessions, without regard to race, the police came and directed everyone to obey local law. Having walked into a session late, ER sat down in the black section near her friend Mary McLeod Bethune, who was now director of the Negro Affairs Division in the National Youth Administration. When the police ordered ER to move, she had her chair placed between the white and black delegations. And it was there she sat, symbolically outside of racial strictures, for the remainder of the conference.

The first lady’s deft reaction warmed the hearts of conferees, angered segregationists, and thrilled the black press. The influential Afro-American newspaper, of which Murray was a devoted reader, underscored the significance of ER’s aisle-straddling tactic by proclaiming, “Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”


after camp tera, Murray got a job with the Works Progress Administration, initially as a remedial reading teacher, then with the Workers’ Education Project. Now that the WPA was in jeopardy, she planned to return to North Carolina, where she could do graduate work at UNC and look after her adoptive mother, Aunt Pauline. The thought of living in the South again filled Murray with dread. On the other hand, it seemed worth the sacrifice to further her education and be with family.

In no mood for armchair liberalism, Murray counted herself among a group of young radicals incensed by FDR’s “coziness with white supremacy in the South.” She reasoned that if UNC were half the institution the president said it was, its administration would find a way to accommodate her. Murray knew of only one way to challenge his roundly praised address. She typed a bold missive, spelling out what the South was like for blacks, daring him to take a stand as a fellow Christian for democracy and the liberal principles he espoused.

December 6, 1938

Dear President Roosevelt:

I pray that this letter will get past your secretaries and reach your personal consideration.

Have you time to listen to the problem of one of your millions of fellow-citizens, which will illustrate most clearly one of the problems of democracy in America. I speak not only for myself but for 12,000,000 other citizens.

Briefly, the facts are these:

I am a Negro, the most oppressed, most misunderstood and most neglected section of your population.

I am also a WPA worker, another insecure and often misrepresented group of citizens. I teach on the Workers’ Education Project of New York City, a field which has received the constant and devoted support of your wife, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.

My main interest, the tradition of my family for three generations, is education, which, I believe, is the basic requirement for the maintenance and extension of democracy.

At present, in order to do a competent teaching job, a job comparable to the work of established educational institutions, like all other professional WPA workers, I feel the need of more training. To understand the knotty economic and social problems of our country and to interpret these problems clearly and simply to workers makes it imperative that we continue our studies. Our wage standards are such that we are unable to further our education. Those of us who do not have degrees are unable to get them because of the general WPA arrangements. Those of us who have degrees, and yet feel an inadequacy of information and formal training, find it impossible to go further and obtain our Master’s Degree.

Sometime ago I applied to the University of North Carolina for admission to their graduate school. They sent me an application blank, on the bottom of which was asked, “Race and Religion.” (For your information, I am a confirmed Protestant Episcopalian.) As you know, no Negro has ever been admitted to the University of North Carolina. You may wonder then, why I, a Negro knowing this fact, did make application.

My grandfather, a Union Army soldier, gave his eye for the liberation of his race. As soon as the war was over, he went to North Carolina under the Freedmen’s Bureau to establish schools and educate the newly freed Negroes. From that time on my entire family has been engaged in educational work in that state. My own father was a principal of one of the Baltimore City schools and my sisters and brothers are also teachers. You passed through Durham, where my family lived and worked, and where my aunt now a woman of sixty-eight years, still plods back and forth to her school training future citizens of America. This aunt has been teaching since she was fifteen years old, and for more than thirty years in the Durham Public Schools, and yet if she were to become disabled tomorrow, there is no school pension system which would take care of her, neither does she qualify for the Old Age Pension system which excludes teachers.

12,000,000 of your citizens have to endure insults, injustices, and such degradation of spirit that you would believe impossible as a human being and a Christian. We are forced to ride in prescribed places in the busses and street cars of those very cities you passed through in our beloved Southland. When your party reached the station at Durham yesterday, you must have noticed a sign which said “White,” and then a fence, then another sign which said “Colored.” Can you, for one moment, put yourself in our place and imagine the feelings of resentment, the protest, the indignation, the outrage that would rise within you to realize that you, a human being, with the keen sensitivities of other human beings were being set off in a corner, marked apart from your fellow human beings?

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Hand of Friendship xiii

Prelude: Camp Tera, 1933-35 1

Part I Taking Aim at the White House, 1938-40

1 "It Is the Problem, of My People" 21

2 "Members of Your Race Are Not Admitted" 31

3 "We Have to Be Very Careful About the People We Select" 35

4 "I Am Resigning" 41

5 "We… Are the Disinherited" 45

6 "It Was the Highest Honor… to Meet and Talk with You" 50

7 "When People Overwork Themselves, … They Must Pay for It" 55

Part II Bumping up Against the Law, 1940-42

8 "Miss Murray Was Unwise Not to Comply with the Law" 61

9 "Where Were We to Turn for Help?" 67

10 "Will You Do mat You Can to Help Us?" 72

11 "Might as Well Become a Lawyer" 78

12 "I Have Done Everything I Can Possibly Do" 84

13 "The President Has Let the Negro Down" 92

Part III Making Friends with the First Lady, 1942-44

14 "The Race Problem Is a War Issue" 99

15 "He Really Didn't Know Why Women Came to Law School" 107

16 "Many Good Things Have Happened" 113

17 "For give My Brutal Frankness" 120

18 "I Count You a Real Friend" 127

19 "The Flowers Brought Your Spirit to the Graduation" 132

20 "So at Last We Have Come to D-Day" 138

21 "This Harvard Business Makes Me Bristle" 142

Part IV Standing Up to Life's Challenges, 1944-45

22 "You Wouldn't Want to Put Fala in Here" 147

23 "This Letter Is Confidential" 153

24 "The Whole Thing Has Left Me Very Disturbed" 157

25 "I Shall Shout for the Rights of All Mankind" 162

26 "I Pray for Your Strength and Fortitude" 165

27 "The Problem Now Is How to Carry On" 171

Part V Fashioning New Lives, 1945-52

28 "Just Know How Cherished You Are to So Many" 177

29 "Glad to Hear the Operation Was Successful" 183

30 "I Hope to Follow the Roosevelt Tradition" 188

31 "I Couldn't Wait to Give You One of the First Copies" 192

32 "I Have to Stand or Fall with the People Who Know Me" 196

Part VI Drawing Closer As Friends, 1952-55

33 "I Could Write in Privacy Without Interruption" 205

34 "We Consider You a Member of the Family" 208

35 "I Was Deeply Moved That You Counted Me Among Your Close Friends" 211

36 "I Know How Much This Decision Means to You" 214

37 "I Cannot Live with Fear" 218

38 "Some Fear-Mongers May Feel That Even President Eisenhower Might Be a Security Risk" 223

39 "What I Have to Say Now Is Entirely Personal" 228

40 "What a Wonderful Weekend It Was" 232

41 "You Might… Comment from the Special Woman's Angle" 235

42 "I Cannot Afford to Be a Piker" 238

Part VII Fighting for a Just World, 1956-59

43 "There Appears to Be a Cleavage" 245

44 "You're a Bit of a Firebrand Yourself" 251

45 "You Caught the Feeling I Had in Mind" 255

46 "I Never Cease to Marvel at the Greatness of Your Humanity" 259

47 "Our Friendship Produced Sparks of Sheer Joy" 262

48 "You Can Say We Had a Friendly Conversation, but We Differ" 266

49 "The Chips Are Really Down in Little Rock" 269

50 "Discrimination Does Something Intangible and Harmful" 276

51 "There Are Times When a Legal Brief Is Inadequate" 279

52 "That Granddaughter Must Be a Chip off the Venerable Block" 282

Part VIII Lighting the Path for New Activists, 1959-62

53 "Nothing I Had Read or Heard Prepared Me" 289

54 "It Is a Bit of a Pest to Have to Keep Still" 293

55 "I Hope You Were Not in Danger" 297

56 "Read That You Had a Bad Case of Flu" 300

57 "I Am as Well as Anyone Can Be at My Age" 305

58 "Would You Please Bring Me a Glass of Lemonade?" 308

59 "We Shall Be Working Doubly Hard To Carry On" 311

Part IX Speaking Truth to the End, 1963-85

60 "Mrs. Roosevelt's Spirit Marches On" 321

61 "I Have Been a Person with an Independent Inquiring Mind" 328

62 "Mrs. R. Seemed to Have Been Forgotten" 335

63 "The Missing Element… Is Theological" 341

64 "God's Presence Is as Close as the Touch of a Loved One's Hand" 348

65 "Hopefully, We Have Picked Up the Candle" 351

66 "Eleanor Roosevelt Was the Most Visible Symbol of Autonomy" 355

67 "All the Strands of My Life Had Come Together" 358

Acknowledgments 363

Notes 371

Index 435

Reading Group Guide

This guide has been designed to aid in your reading group's discussion of Patricia Bell-Scott's The Firebrand and the First Lady.

1. Pauli Murray was 24 and Eleanor Roosevelt was 49 when their paths first crossed in 1934 at Camp Tera. What aspects of the camp bore ER’s imprint? Why did Murray have fond memories of the camp positive, despite her difficulties with the camp director who expelled her?

2. Pauli Murray’s initial letters to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were protest statements against the whites-only admission policy of the University of North Carolina, the humiliation of unemployment, and a segregated benefit at the Keith Theatre in Washington, D.C. How did Murray’s letters influence ER’s response to racial discrimination? How did ER’s response affect Murray?

3. How did the University of North Carolina’s rejection of Murray’s application for admission to the graduate school, her arrest in Petersburg, Virginia, for refusing to move to the black section of a Greyhound bus, and her work with the Workers Defense League as field secretary for the Odell Waller campaign impact her life?

4. The NAACP twice refused to handle the appeals for discrimination cases in which Pauli Murray was a plaintiff. Why?

5. During the course of their long friendship, Eleanor Roosevelt shared Pauli Murray’s opinions with Franklin Roosevelt, members of his administration, opinion-makers, and the readers of “My Day.” Identify one of the issues that seemed closest to ER’s heart?

6. Murray suspected that the prejudice and discrimination she faced because of her race, sex, and sexuality thwarted her professional advancement and contributed to her marginality in the historical record? What do you think?

7.Murray was a self-described individualist and temperamentally shy. She also had a thyroid disorder that caused mood swings. How might these factors have frustrated her relationships and ambition?

8. How did the early life experiences of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt influence the kind of leaders they became?

9. The campaign to save the life of Odell Waller was unsuccessful. However, it fostered an alliance between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt that became a turning point in their budding friendship. What aspects of the case drew them together, and why? Do you see any parallel between the Odell Waller case and the contemporary debate about the interrelationship of race, class, voting rights, and criminal justice?

10. Both Pauli Murray and ER were women of faith. How did this influenced their actions?

11. Pauli Murray said she went to Howard University Law School intent on becoming a civil rights lawyer and she graduated “unabashed feminist as well.” How did the law school experience influence her thinking?

12. Do you think that the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt changed their political views? Did Murray ever move toward the center? Did Eleanor Roosevelt move left?

13. Pauli Murray coined the term “Jane Crow.” Explain what she meant by this.

14. The student protests Pauli Murray and her fellow Howardites mounted to desegregate Washington, D.C. restaurants were a model for the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. What common strategies did the two groups share?

15. Why and how did Eleanor Roosevelt’s support of African Americans, especially during World War II, create tension in the White House, resentment from the administration’s enemies, and admiration from blacks and progressives?

16. The author has found no correspondence in which Murray discussed her sexuality with Eleanor Roosevelt. Do you think ER may have figured this out? If so, why?

17. For what reasons did Pauli Murray come to regard Eleanor Roosevelt as quasi-kin? How did ER demonstrate her fondness and concern for Murray? And how did Murray demonstrate her fondness and concern for ER?

18. Explain the intellectual and personal connections Murray had to the argument and people involved in the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown decision.

19. How did McCarthyism touch Pauli Murray and her friends?

20. On what issues did Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt agree and disagree regarding the 1956 Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign?

21. What fueled the writing of Pauli Murray’s family memoir Proud Shoes?

22. What were the benefits, as well as the challenges Murray faced as a junior associate at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison?

23. What made Pauli Murray’s partnership with Irene Barlow the most satisfying relationship of her adult life?

24. How did Murray’s expectations of Africa measure up against her experience?

25. How did Eleanor Roosevelt’s response to the student movement of the early 1960s compare to her response to youth activists in the 1930s and 1940s when she was first lady?

26. Did Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt differ in their view of John F. Kennedy?

27. Eleanor Roosevelt died in November 1962, four months after Murray’s last visit to Val-Kill. Describe how Murray sought to honor her friendship with ER and keep the first lady’s legacy alive until her own death in July 1985.

28. What is Pauli Murray’s lasting contribution to the struggle for women’s equality?

29. The file the FBI created on Pauli Murray contained a number of accusations about her affiliations and her character? How were they used against her?

30. Why did Pauli Murray become a priest and how did she define her mission?

Customer Reviews