The February 1953 issue of Ebony included an article entitled ‘Some of My Best Friends Are Negroes.’ The byline was Eleanor Roosevelt’s, though the headline, apparently, was not:
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,
She is a lovely person who has struggled and come through very well.
Indeed, nothing was ever easy for Murray, a black woman born in 1910, a woman attracted to women and also a poet, memoirist, lawyer, activist and Episcopal priest. But her tender friendship with Roosevelt, sustained over nearly a quarter-century and more than 300 cards and letters, helped. It is the rich earth Patricia Bell-Scott tills for ‘The Firebrand and the First Lady,’ a tremendous book that has been 20 years in the making.
You could say Pauli Murray was born too soon, and saying so captures the essential injustice of her life, but it would also rob her of credit for making her own time the best she could. ‘I’m really a submerged writer,’ Murray once told her friends, ‘but the exigencies of the period have driven me into social action.’ The granddaughter of a woman born into slavery and a mixed-race Union soldier, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the colored section of a bus 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycott and for participating in restaurant sit-ins in the early 1940s, long before the 1960 sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter. She led a national campaign on behalf of a black sharecropper on death row.
In 1938, Murray, then a W.P.A. worker who had once glimpsed the first lady and been chastised for refusing to rise, wrote a furious letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for speaking at the all-white University of North Carolina. ‘I am a Negro, the most oppressed, misunderstood and most neglected section of your population,’ she informed him. ‘You called on Americans to support a liberal philosophy based on democracy. What does this mean for Negro Americans?’ She sent a copy with a brief introduction to Roosevelt’s wife, who had met with N.A.A.C.P. representatives when her husband refused to. It worked. The two women were different in age, race and class, but they had a few things in common. They were orphaned as children and raised by elderly relatives. They were inquisitive, they were readers, they were idealists. They didn’t mind a fight, but they channeled institutional power for good, if they could.
Though Mrs. Roosevelt rebuked Murray for not understanding the constraints the president was under, what with the Southern white supremacists in his fractious coalition, she plainly admired Murray’s spirit and did what she could to support her. Murray was a guest in her homes and at the White House, and Roosevelt cheered her from afar. (Years later, Roosevelt sent the presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson a copy of ‘Proud Shoes,’ Murray’s family memoir, apparently to improve his understanding of black Americans.) But the first lady had no magic wand for what her young friend was up against. Murray was repeatedly hospitalized and resisted the diagnosis of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness, failing to persuade doctors to give her male sex hormones. Early in her career, Murray published an essay accompanied by her gender-ambiguous photo and under the name ‘Pete,’ calling it her ‘boy-self.’ Her sexuality, along with suspicions of Communism and mental instability, may have been why, when Murray was refused entry to that same University of North Carolina, Thurgood Marshall, then with the N.A.A.C.P., turned down her case, telling her, ‘We have to be very careful about the people we select.’ Later, despite her considerable intellect and three law degrees from elite institutions, no law faculty and only one law firm would offer her a permanent position. Near the end of her life, Murray declared, ‘If anyone should ask a Negro woman what is her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived.’ ’
On the way there, Murray’s earnest chutzpah knew no limits. In 1939, Murray wrote to Franklin Roosevelt to ask him to name a ‘a qualified Negro’ to the Supreme Court. It would take nearly three decades and 17 more white male justices before her friend Marshall made it onto the court.
Bell-Scott allows these women to speak for themselves, a light touch that works with two heavyweights. The format has its limitations: During most of the years of their friendship, Roosevelt’s life was marked by a series of international delegations that don’t quite make for riveting reading, and Murray did her most important intellectual and political work after Roosevelt’s death. But the fact that Mrs. Roosevelt is here more foil than subject hardly detracts from this distinguished work. Some stories are more urgent and untold than others. And Bell-Scott, who was an editor of the important anthology ‘All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,’ persuasively suggests that Roosevelt’s influence contributed to what would be Murray’s most lasting mark, on women’s rights. ‘She had spent the first half of her life fighting for equal rights as an African-American, only to discover she would have to spend the second half fighting for equal rights as a woman,’ Bell-Scott writes. A brilliant legal strategist, Murray formulated a plan for rendering sex discrimination unconstitutional using the 14th Amendment, co-founded the National Organization for Women and tried her best to build bridges between black and white feminists. In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first brief to the Supreme Court, in 1971, she listed Murray as a co-author, though Murray had not worked on it, a nod to the brief’s intellectual ancestry. Ginsburg’s win in that case wrested from the Supreme Court its first ruling against sex discrimination as unconstitutional.
As Eleanor Roosevelt lay dying, in October 1962, Murray wrote her friend: ‘For many years you have been one of my most important models — one who combines graciousness with moral principle, straightforwardness with kindliness, political shrewdness with idealism, courage with generosity, and most of all an ongoingness which never falters, no matter what the difficulties may be. Two generations of women have been touched by your spirit.’ Not long afterward, Murray fought to keep the prohibition on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act, arguing that it could not be severed from the scourge of racial discrimination. ‘If it is true that slavery and all that followed has denied the Negro male his manhood, isn’t it equally true that the view of a Negro woman as a sex object or a body to be employed in domestic labor has denied her due respect?’ she demanded of a reporter. When she won that battle, Murray told her colleague Lloyd Garrison, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’s spirit marches on.’
The disappointments of the years did not altogether extinguish Murray’s audacity. When she heard that the F.B.I. had been sniffing around her, she sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover with a ‘personal history’ and a photo of herself to avoid any confusion. In 1971, still unbowed, she wrote to another president with another bold proposal: that Nixon nominate her to the Supreme Court. Forty-five years later, no black woman has yet been appointed to that body.