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, 464 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Dayo F. Gore
On December 6, 1938, the lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray wrote to Franklin Roosevelt seeking to draw the second-term president’s attention to the widespread discrimination faced by African Americans. “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?” she inquired. “I speak not only for myself but for 12,000,000 other citizens … I am a Negro, the most oppressed, the most misunderstood and the most neglected section of your population.”
Murray penned a companion letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the hope that ER would “try to understand” even if her husband did not. This proved a successful gambit, as Eleanor Roosevelt sent a reply some two weeks later assuring Murray that “I understand perfectly,” but cautioning her that “the South is changing, but don’t push too fast.” The scholar Patricia Bell-Scott explains that Murray’s two letters, which detail her frustration with Jim Crow segregation, mark the beginning of a more than twenty-year friendship and epistolary exchange between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bell-Scott’s exploration of the intriguing relationship between Murray, a young radical, and Roosevelt, a popular first lady and influential political figure more than twenty years Murray’s senior, provides the frame for her engaging history, The Firebrand and the First Lady. Murray’s lengthy correspondence with Roosevelt is not wholly unique, given both women’s letter-writing practices. Murray had numerous epistolary relationships, some with notable figures such as the NAACP legal activist and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and others with close friends and political allies such as the labor organizer Maida Springer Kemp. Recently, Murray’s forty years of correspondence with her mentor Caroline Ware was culled into an annotated collection by the historian Anna Firor Scott.
The Firebrand and the First Lady adds a new wrinkle to Murray and Roosevelt’s often-cited epistolary friendship by examining their extensive personal letters alongside oral interviews, recollections, published writings, and voluminous archival records to tell a broader and more expansive story. In so doing, Bell-Scott provides a richly textured portrait not only of the women’s evolving friendship but also of their individual lives and a selective but engaging history of post-1930s civil rights organizing and US race and gender politics.
Bell-Scott’s narrative opens with a Prelude describing Murray and Roosevelt’s first encounter at Camp Tera in 1934, when Murray is 33 and the first lady is in her fifties. (Camp TERA—Temporary Emergency Relief Assistance—was part of a federal camp program organized as a kind of counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps—the CCC—which offered work to men. Camp TERA and others were meant to offer respite to poor, sick, starving women.) Bell-Scott’s Prelude briefly outlines the formative aspects of each women’s childhood, family circumstances, and expectations—those that shaped each one’s sense of herself and led her to Camp TERA, Murray as a resident and Roosevelt as a celebrated visitor and champion of the program.
The story unfolds in brief chronological chapters that trace the development of the women’s friendship and activism from the 1930s until Murray’s death in 1984, providing valuable historical context for the brief biographical sketches that anchor the narrative. Readers receive a complete accounting of Murray’s adult life, but learn about only the last three decades of Roosevelt’s, who died in 1962. Murray’s eclectic and expansive life path is clearly the center of most of the chapters, although the narrative also provides a new entry point into Roosevelt’s more familiar biography.
Bell-Scott sketches Murray’s life, from her shifting career opportunities and ambitions, deep family connections, and expansive political affiliations and investments, to her struggles with her gender identity, same-sex desire, and health. She examines similar issues in Roosevelt’s life, including her husband’s affairs and illness, her own ambitions and passion for teaching, as well as her intimate friendships with women, including the journalist Lorena Hickok, a lesbian. Yet, although Bell-Scott acknowledges Murray’s struggle with gender identity and sexuality, and Roosevelt’s rumored lesbian relationships, neither is given full analysis it deserves.
Bell-Scott’s circumspect treatment of the women’s shared queer affinities and rejection of dominant gender norms submerges what was perhaps an important aspect of their friendship. For example, in a 1955 exchange, Murray includes a photo of herself in “pants, galoshes, a beanie cap and sweater” that she felt represents her “most natural self.” Roosevelt declares the picture “delightful.” Bell-Scott does not comment on how Murray’s desire for a more masculine presentation—and Roosevelt’s support for the practice—informed their friendship, even though it was Roosevelt’s “unpretentiousness” and rejection of the gendered expectations that caught Murray’s attention in their initial meeting.
The friendship was not just epistolary. Murray visited Roosevelt at her New York City apartment; in her upstate New York home, Val-Kill; and at the White House. Bell-Scott writes that Murray felt their simpatico was informed by the fact that both had lost parents at an early age and were raised by older relatives. Murray also found it significant that she and Roosevelt shared “Anna” as a rarely used first name, and that Roosevelt’s birthday fell one day after Murray’s mother’s.
Bell-Scott outlines the ways Murray and Roosevelt’s quite different personal experiences of oppression and privilege informed their friendship and particular investments in social justice. In their letters, they debated the pace of social change, institutional segregation, and the limits of liberal politics as well as their similar life experiences. They turned to each other for insight around a host of issues. Both supported economic, racial, and gender equality. In fact, Roosevelt confessed, if it hadn’t been for her husband, she would have joined Murray in voting for the socialist candidate Norman Thomas in the 1932 election. The first lady was a powerful supporter for the young and politically ambitious Murray, at times even willing to champion Murray’s causes to the president—although her efforts were not always successful. For example, at Murray’s urging, Roosevelt made “a personal appeal to the governor [of Virginia]” and to the president to spare the life of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper who had killed his white boss. But Waller was executed.
In turn, for Roosevelt, Murray represented an authentic voice of black America, whom Roosevelt often quoted in her weekly newspaper column. Murray defended the first lady in print and was a helpful listener as Roosevelt negotiated “her personal feelings” in the midst of her very public life, writes Bell-Scott.
This study illuminates the debates and differences between Murray and Roosevelt regarding “the struggle for social justice,” which they saw as concerned mainly with racial justice and women’s equality, although it could also extend to international politics. They often clashed over the pace of change, and Roosevelt came to view Murray as a “firebrand” who was at times guilty of “foolish things” such as Murray’s sharp critiques in both letters and writings of liberal officials’ (including the Roosevelts) acquiescence to racial segregation. Indeed, Murray herself was under no illusions that Roosevelt was anything other than “a regular Democrat,” writes Bell-Scott.
In her challenge to Roosevelt, Murray represented a younger generation of African American and women thinkers. Emerging from a US radical milieu shaped by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Depression, she was well versed in a range of communist thought and organizing. Her stay at Camp Tera, though significant, was curtailed: she was expelled after the director found her copy of Marx’s Das Kapital. She briefly joined the Jay Lovestone Communist Party (Opposition), and throughout her life was affiliated with the Socialist Party and its leading members, such as A. Philip Randolph.
Such political investments provide an alternative vision and useful contrast to Roosevelt’s more cautious liberalism. This is particularly striking as Bell-Scott traces their debates over the federal government’s refusal to intervene in Jim Crow segregation and Roosevelt’s urging for patience regarding demands for racial equality. It’s also visible in their discussions of World War II and postwar politics; the cold-war red scare, which had a devastating impact on Murray’s career; and the NAACP’s successful efforts to challenge segregation, which culminated in the Brown v Board of Education decision invalidating the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which Roosevelt celebrated vicariously through Murray, who was overjoyed by the court decision. Bell-Scott also draws on their political lives to detail Roosevelt’s involvement in the founding of the United Nations, which Murray championed and followed closely; both women’s roles in the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), which Roosevelt chaired; and Murray’s key activism in addressing race and gender discrimination in her support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and her role in the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) two years later.
Ultimately, Murray’s longstanding political identity as a self-described “revolutionary pacifist” with “an independent inquiring mind” made it difficult for her to find common cause with Roosevelt and other mainstream liberals—yet she was also marginalized in the male dominated, heteronormative civil rights movement. She was antagonistic to the militant politics emerging from the left even as she was still tainted as communist and un-American by cold-war red-baiting. Bell-Scott sidesteps this lifelong tension in Murray’s left-liberal politics, as she acknowledges but minimizes Murray’s longstanding connection to socialism. Bell-Scott’s narrative is unabashedly progressive: she depicts Murray moving away from her youthful radicalism and toward mainstream liberal politics and the Democratic Party. Thus, in the book’s final section Bell-Scott writes, “Murray had come a long way from voting socialist …to embracing the southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964” as a “registered but independent Democrat.” The shift, Bell-Scott notes, would have “delighted Roosevelt,” and she presents it as the natural culmination of their friendship and Murray’s maturity. While this framing makes for a seamless narrative, it minimizes Murray’s ideological investments and elides the ways McCarthyism and cold war anticommunism foreclosed not only Murray’s career but also her brand of left-liberal politics.
Overall The Firebrand and the First Lady is a vivid, detailed, and compelling history. In delineating Murray and Roosevelt’s deep friendship, and in its attentiveness to both their personal biographies and their political activism, the book provides a much-needed, fuller account of Murray’s life than we’ve had before, as well as a useful reading of Roosevelt’s politics and personality. While greater attention to the nuances of Murray’s left politics, and Roosevelt and Murray’s common ground in challenging dominant gender and sexual norms, would have provided a fuller picture of their political vision and a more powerful lens into their friendship and shared investment in the struggle for social justice, the study nevertheless provides important details concerning these issues. Moreover, the centering of the women’s own voices produces an absorbing portrait of these two individuals and the era in which they lived and worked.
Dayo F. Gore is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011) and co-editor of Want to Start of Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (2009).