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

By Gundersen, Joan R. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2018 | Go to article overview

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


Gundersen, Joan R., Anglican and Episcopal History


The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. By Patricia Bell-Scott. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, Pp. xix, 454. $30.00 cloth.)

Patricia Bell-Scott explores the unlikely friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt using their letters and extensive research. While Bell-Scott includes parallel biographical material on both women, it is Murray's life that drives the story. The author covers only the parts of Roosevelt's public and private life pertinent to the correspondence. Murray first glimpses Roosevelt in 1933 at a New Deal camp for women. The correspondence began in 1938 with a letter from Murray to Eleanor Roosevelt protesting Present Franklin Roosevelt's weak stands on racial issues. The First Lady replied, thus began a long correspondence and growing friendship, marked by occasional meetings. Economically, socially, and racially the two lived in different worlds, but both had been orphaned young and dealt with family tragedy; both were Episcopalians; and both had taken that faith and life experience to craft lives of service. Murray became a gadfly constantly prodding Roosevelt towards stronger stands on racial justice, and both grew increasingly aware of discrimination against women.

As the correspondence developed, Murray was rejected on racial grounds for graduate work at the University of North Carolina, was in and out of jobs with social justice groups while dealing with personal and family health issues. Murray enrolled at Howard University Law School, where she organized restaurant sit-ins and was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on an interstate bus. She and Eleanor met several times, and the First Lady sent flowers when Murray graduated first in her class in 1944. When Harvard Law School refused her admittance, Murray went to Berkley's Boalt School of Law. There she faced housing discrimination and pressed Roosevelt for justice for the court-martialed black sailors who refused to work under unsafe conditions following the deadly Port Arthur explosion.

In 1945 both women began new lives. With an M.A from Boalt, Murray became California's first black deputy attorney general. The widowed Roosevelt's letter of congratulations came from London where she was serving as a member of the delegation to the first meeting of the United Nations. Health problems ended Murray's California job and she returned to New York where sex discrimination forced her to work as a law clerk. …

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