The friendship between Pauli Murray, a human rights activist, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is explored in a new book by Patricia Bell-Scott, University of Georgia professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science. Bell-Scott will discuss her book, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (published by Knopf), Feb. 4 at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries.
Co-sponsored by the Lucy Hargrett Draper Center and Archives and the Institute for African American Studies, the event, scheduled from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., is part of UGA’s Black History Month observance and will launch a national book tour. Prior to the Bell-Scott’s presentation, the African American Choral Ensemble will present a selection of songs under the direction of Dr. Gregory Broughton. A reception will also be held.
As founding editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Women, Bell-Scott contacted Pauli Murray to serve on its initial editorial board. A comment in Murray’s return letter – “you need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on” – stayed with Bell-Scott, eventually leading to nearly two decades of research and writing that has produced this dual biography. “Pauli’s suggestion sounded like a call in many ways,” Bell-Scott said.
“Once I began reading the correspondence between them, I knew my job was to tell their story,” she said. “I wanted to know what drew together the granddaughter of a mulatto slave reared in North Carolina, and a native New Yorker, whose ancestry entitled her to membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. I wanted to understand the nature of their unlikely friendship, and how it changed over time. I wondered what individual needs the relationship satisfied, how were they changed by it, and what significance did it have for the cause of social justice.”
Drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts, and interviews, Bell-Scott gives us the first close-up portrait of this evolving friendship and how it was sustained over time, what each gave to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.
Murray and Roosevelt met after a letter Murray wrote protesting racial segregation in the South made its way to the First Lady.
“I learned that their friendship began in 1938 as a confrontation in words, fueled by Murray’s desire for dramatic social change and the First Lady’s obligation to the measured approach Franklin Roosevelt’s administration took on the question of civil rights,” Bell-Scott said.
Murray was the first African American to receive a doctor of juridical science from Yale, the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, a key strategist in the fight to preserve Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women.
“I am delighted this book is coming out at this particular moment,” Bell-Scott said, citing the 50th anniversary of NOW, the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women that was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and the 60th anniversary of Murray’s memoir, Proud Shoes, which many scholars consider the precursor to Alex Hailey’s Roots.
“The friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt came to be characterized by honesty, trust, empathy, mutual respect, acceptance, a commitment to hearing the other’s point of view, pleasure in each other’s company, and the ability to pick up where they left off, irrespective of the miles that had separated them or the time lapsed,” Bell-Scott said.