A Brilliant and Important Book

A new residential college currently under construction at Yale University will bear the name of Anna Pauline Murray, the “firebrand” portrayed in Patricia Bell-Scott’s latest book. Don’t recognize the name? Well, Murray was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women and the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. She also published an important paper that eventually produced the landmark legal argument of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.

She earned three law degrees: Howard University (first in her class and only female), the University of California Boalt School of Law and Yale University Law School (the first African American to receive this degree). She was graduated from General Theological Seminary in 1976, the same year the church’s General Convention approved the ordination of women. She was ordained in 1977 at the age of 66.

Murray, known as “Pauli,” initially met Eleanor Roosevelt during the height of the depression at Camp Tera, the only Civilian Conservation Camp for young women. Pauli was then 23-years-old and was impressed with Roosevelt’s self-assurance. As early as 1928, Eleanor Roosevelt, criticized by many for her indifference to the 18th amendment mandating prohibition, retorted that her critics would do better to be alarmed that the 14th and 15th amendments, promising full rights of citizenship to African-Americans, were not being enforced.

The First Lady’s independence inspired Pauli to agitate for changes at the camp and also to press Roosevelt to continue to use her influence to make wide societal changes, especially those concerning race.

After a slightly frosty beginning, their friendship grew and endured through letters Pauli sent to Mrs. Roosevelt, coaching her about what stand to take on a variety of civil rights cases. This correspondence reached its peak during FDR’s presidency and continued during Mrs. Roosevelt’s tenure as chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. They enjoyed a nurturing friendship that lasted until Mrs. Roosevelt’s death.

Pauli discerned that Mrs. Roosevelt’s personal secretary, Malvina Thompson, was sympathetic to social justice issues. As gatekeeper of the First Lady’s mail, Mrs. Thompson made sure Pauli’s correspondence always made the stack that received primary attention.

Bell-Scott’s dual portrait of these two activists reveals how much they learned from each other about racism and sexism. It also depicts the political tension that always exists between ideals and what can actually be legislated. They came from two different worlds, but their relationship weathered tension and grew to be one of mutual respect, admiration and a common fervor for social reform.

Pauli’s early life was illustrative of the unevenness of black family life. She was born in 1910 to a black Baltimore family, but her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage when she was only three. The child was sent to her aunt and grandparents in North Carolina who raised her. When she was 13 her father suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to Crownsville State Hospital where he was killed by a white guard.

Murray’s adult life also was filled with setbacks and disappointments because of her race and gender. She was barred from being a candidate for several professorships because of her race. And, as a woman, she hit the “glass ceiling” in those positions she did hold.

Bell-Scott chronicles the friendship of these two principled and honorable agitators over several decades, and deftly depicts each woman in relation to the other and the causes they supported.

Patricia Bell-Scott is a professor emerita at the University of Georgia. Her 20 years of exhaustive research for this book is remarkable; a true gift to the record of United States history. “The Firebrand and the First Lady” is a fast-paced, absorbing and brilliantly written book. It vividly portrays the racial justice movement and the feminist movement in its exhilarating 454 pages. This record of history illuminates the ongoing struggle for equality for all who call America home. This is an important read and includes many photographs.