The Firebrand and the First Lady —by Jinny Batterson
The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, published early in 2016, was written long after the deaths of its protagonists, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray. Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and the activist wife of her distant cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She continued in her own right after her husband’s death. Pauli Murray was an activist, organizer, lawyer, writer, and eventually a priest. She dealt with the double whammy of discrimination for being black and female in a time that undervalued both.
Just after the title page, author Patricia Bell-Scott introduces the two women through quotations taken from their extensive writings and correspondence. The first listed entry, from Pauli Murray, was published over 20 years after Mrs. Roosevelt’s death in the journal of Murray’s university, The Hunter Magazine:
“For me, becoming friends with Mrs. Roosevelt was a slow, painful process, marked by sharp exchanges of correspondence, often anger on my side and exasperation on her side, and a gradual development of mutual admiration and respect.”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s initial quotation came from an article, “Some of My Best Friends are Negro,” published in the magazine Ebony in 1953:
“One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyer—Pauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond.”
Over three hundred well-researched pages chronicle their developing friendship during the years when the two women’s lives intersected, and then the years after Mrs. R.’s death when Murray continued to write, speak, work for social justice, and honor Mrs. R.’s legacy.
The two were born a generation apart—Roosevelt in 1884, Murray in 1910–to economic and social circumstances that could hardly have been more different. However, the emotional traumas of their early lives were similar. Both lost parents at a tender age. Both were shunted among relatives and schools throughout their teens.
Mrs. Roosevelt first encountered Pauli Murray on a visit to an upstate New York camp for unemployed single women in 1934 or 1935. Murray had gone there during the depths of the Great Depression to help regain her strength after a couple of years of intermittent employment in New York City. Mrs. Roosevelt had helped finance the camp. She had insisted that it be racially integrated. During the first lady’s visit, Murray hung back and said nothing, later getting scolded by the camp director for her lack of manners.
The two women next interacted when Murray copied “Mrs. R.” on an impassioned 1938 letter to FDR criticizing his spotty civil rights record, especially his recent speech praising “liberal” University of North Carolina, which repeatedly rejected Murray’s graduate student application on racial grounds.
By the early days of 1940, Murray was executive director of a non-profit highlighting the problems of sharecroppers. She and several colleagues had a chance to meet with Mrs. Roosevelt in Mrs. R.’s Manhattan apartment. From then on, the two women carried on an irregular but spirited correspondence for the rest of their mutual lives. Mrs. R. helped when she could with some of Murray’s causes, but cautioned restraint, occasionally even upbraiding Murray’s brashness.
When Murray graduated from Howard Law School in June, 1944, ER sent a congratulatory note and a bouquet. When FDR died in April, 1945, Murray sent Mrs. R. a lengthy condolence: “…There is not one I’ve seen who has not expressed a physical illness over the disaster which has befallen each individual American today. …I pray for your strength and fortitude, because we all need you more than ever now.”
ER went on to chair a U.N. commission that developed and got General Assembly approval for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She worked at the U.N. for several more years, then continued writing, speaking, and humanitarian work until her death in 1962.
Murray offered this public tribute at a 1982 conference celebrating Mrs. Roosevelt’s life:
“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 challenge to the individual is to try to move to the very boundaries of our historical limitations and to project ourselves toward future centuries. Mrs. Roosevelt … did just that.”
Murray attended a 1984 conference celebrating the centennial of ER’s birth, but was hospitalized soon afterward with serious health problems. She died in 1985.
If the delay in publishing The Firebrand and the First Lady partly resides in the meticulous scholarship to track down sources and verify quotations, it seems to me that the timing of the book’s release is providential. It comes as this year’s U.S. Presidential campaign intensifies. One of the chief actors is a former first lady with extensive qualifications of her own. It comes at a time when LGBT communities, of which Murray was a closeted member, are becoming more insistent on full citizenship. It comes as we approach this year’s celebration of Mother’s Day, when we acknowledge both our physical mothers and those who have nurtured and challenged us, in the best tradition of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Pauline Murray.