The Firebrand and the First Lady by historian Patricia Bell-Scott is a sort of biography of a friendship between one of the best-known women of the 20th century, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pauli Murray, a descendant of slaves and civil rights activist whose influence was greater than her low historical profile might suggest — and whose personal story is a fascinating one worthy of attention.
Despite their differences in race, age, position and background, Roosevelt and Murray developed a friendship based on years of correspondence and occasional meetings. Bell-Scott finds in that relationship a valuable new lens to examine the civil rights and women’s movements in the 20th century.
In this excerpt from The Firebrand and the First Lady, Bell-Scott describes the first time the two had a one-on-one interaction, in 1940 at a apartment Roosevelt kept in New York City. (Murray had seen Roosevelt speak a few years earlier.) Murray was part of a group crusading for farmworkers rights.
Bell-Scott, a professor emerita at the University of Georgia, will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11.
Colette Bancroft, Times book editor
At twenty-nine, Murray was the youngest of the group. Still, they all "stammered like schoolgirls." When they stood to introduce themselves, one almost lost her balance. Another tried to curtsy. Murray, who probably wore a dress or skirt because this was a special occasion, "got up and bowed so awkwardly that Mrs. Roosevelt had to suppress a smile." No one touched the refreshments.
It had been nearly six years since Murray first saw ER at Camp Tera. This time, Murray did not shrink behind a newspaper, avoiding eye contact, afraid to speak. Instead she perched on a stool directly facing the first lady’s chair. As ER listened, her blue eyes alert with interest, Murray had the sense that she was "talking with an affectionate older relative." Only from aunts Pauline and Sallie did Murray expect and receive the acceptance she now felt. She also noticed that ER, who was said to be plain, "radiated an inner beauty" that was not obvious in news photographs.
ER was apparently impressed by this diminutive woman with a penchant for penning spirited letters about injustice. The first lady agreed to present the (National Sharecroppers Week) prize for the best high school essay on "the conditions of sharecroppers in America." And she signed on to speak at the NSW banquet.
Murray left the gathering "giddy with success." The next day, she apologized for the size of the delegation in a thank-you note, adding, "It was the highest honor of my career to meet and talk with you." Of the issues raised in the meeting with the NSW committee, ER said in (her newspaper column) "My Day," "We should surely make every effort to have people in the cities understand the problems of their country neighbors."
Less than two weeks after the meeting at Eleanor Roosevelt’s apartment, Pauli Murray cocked her pen again. The trigger was a column the first lady had written after she’d crossed a picket line to attend the premiere of Abe Lincoln in Illinois at the Keith Theatre, on January 22, 1940. This premiere, a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Robert Sherwood, was a benefit sponsored by the Newspaper Women’s Club. A line of protesters, which the first lady and everyone else had to pass to enter the theater, marred the event for Washington society.
ER loved the film as much as she had loved the original play. Raymond Massey’s portrayal of Lincoln, on the screen and the stage, as a person who stood up for his beliefs when there was little evidence that his "beliefs would be accepted" never failed to move her. Having to walk by the protesters made the first lady uneasy, and she discussed her feelings with readers the next day.
"I reached the theater last night to find it picketed by the colored people, who are barred from all District of Columbia theaters except their own," she wrote. "It may not have been quite fair or wise to picket this particular show, because the house had been taken over by an organization for a charity and the organization had the right to sell its tickets to whomever it wished." Yet she hated the idea of crossing a picket line. "Though this was not a strike where any question of unfair labor conditions was involved," the first lady had a sense that this was "unjust discrimination," and it made her "unhappy."
ER may not have known that the prohibition on black patrons was not the only insult that angered protesters. The other snub had to do with a Lincoln look-alike contest launched to boost attendance. When theater management learned that the judges had inadvertently selected the photograph of Thomas P. Bomar, a "tall, lanky" fair-skinned African American postal worker, they refused to acknowledge him at the premiere as planned.
For Murray, the first lady’s attendance at an event that honored Lincoln and, at the same time, discriminated against blacks was a contradiction made worse by the prospect that ER did not understand how humiliating the situation was. Murray "stewed over it for a week" and then shot off a response.
"I was disappointed when I read … that you crossed a picket line against your deeper feelings …
"The continual day-to-day embarrassment of a group is a greater hardship than the momentary embarrassment of the individuals who attended the Keith Theatre performance of Abe Lincoln in Illinois …
"Your article, even though it reflected some indecision, was a most effective result of that demonstration. Sympathetic editorial writers have done yeoman service in building public sentiment for the rights of labor. The rights of minority groups are equally important.
"There can be no compromise on the principle of equality."