Friday, July 29, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses (Part 2): Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady

Part 1 of Bob Douglas' Eleanor Roosevelt through Different Lenses was published here on Sunday. 

Reading The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, I noted that although it covers much of the same material and sources as Ken Burns' The Roosevelts, Patricia Bell-Scott offers a new angle and brings Eleanor Roosevelt into sharper focus with a fuller, more rounded portrait, rendering her a more complex individual than served up in the documentary television series. She continued to encourage her husband to live up to his promises and professed ideals but what is different about The Firebrand is that she in turn was challenged by Pauli Murray (1910-85), an African-American socialist activist, lawyer, poet and first African-American female Episcopal priest.

The unlikely friendship between ER and Murray began in 1938 when the latter sent an impassioned letter to the President that caught the attention of his wife. Murray had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race and she was rightfully outraged, considering that FDR had just visited the university and praised it for its social progress. Her plaintive plea: “We cannot endure these conditions. Our whole being cries out against inequality and injustice” prompted the first lady to offer a glimmer of support: “The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and this is a hopeful sign,” an exchange that captures the dynamic and tone for much of their correspondence that was to continue for decades until ER’s death in 1962.

These missives, meticulously researched by the author, were supplemented with social interactions between the two women at the White House and ER’s homes in New York City and Hyde Park. ER’s relationship with blacks was not secretive. That she publicly celebrated her relationships with black Americans was her way of attacking racial inequality, an act of defiance that prompted savage criticism from the conservative press. When urban racial riots occurred in 1943, a Mississippi newspaper editorial entitled “Blood on Your Hands” indicted ER for “personally proclaiming and practicing social equality at the White House and wherever she went.” But her relationship with Murray was different. How it was possible for two radically different women in class, background and goals to develop and continue a friendship is one of the central questions raised by Bell-Scott.

The courage of the patrician first lady contributed to her bonding with a poor, often unemployed social activist. Yet their relationship somewhat mirrored that between ER and her husband: Murray’s crusading zeal implored Mrs. Roosevelt to reach out to her husband and be more aggressive about demanding racial justice while the ER encouraged more caution on the part of Murray. At first Eleanor – like her husband towards her – became exasperated with Murray, chiding her to tamp down her passion and be more practical. Since they were often brutally honest with each other, the relationship could have cooled and ended. Yet, over the years, it deepened; they often did not agree but attempted to understand each other’s positions.

I think that the friendship was possible because, despite their differences, they shared much in common and came to hold each other in mutual respect. Roosevelt’s background reflects the pedigree of privileged America. By contrast, Murray came from the opposite end of the spectrum, a hardscrabble background in which she faced discrimination not only because she was black, but because of her class and gender. Her grandmother was a mulatto slave and she lost her mother when she was just three, possibly through suicide; a few years later, her father was institutionalized, then murdered, and her brother was lobotomized. Similarly, ER was orphaned at an early age and raised in an unloving environment by her grandmother. Murray was the first in her class at Howard University law school and the first black woman to receive a doctor of judicial science degree from Yale Law School. Nonetheless, she found it difficult to find meaningful work until relatively late in life not only because of her colour but equally because of her gender. Even predominately black universities rarely hired women. Both women were intellectually curious and determined to make a contribution to advancing social justice in a world dominated by men who often regarded women as inferior.

Pauli Murray. (Photo courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University)

Yet professional barriers did not impede Murray’s social activism that indicated she was ahead of her time. While a student at Howard University in 1943, almost twenty years before the sit-ins of the early 1960s, Murray led a successful sit-in at a District of Columbia restaurant, which quickly agreed to serve blacks. She was also arrested for refusing to sit in the coloured section of a bus fifteen years before the Montgomery bus boycott. During the civil rights movement, when the goal was to dismantle the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the South, Murray’s experience as a black woman led her to challenge “Jane Crow” – believing that sexual discrimination should be prohibited by law. (Later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would one day become a Supreme Court Justice, named her as an honorary co-author in a brief because of her work on gender discrimination.) She clashed repeatedly with allies, breaking decisively with her long-term mentor, A. Philip Randolph, over her criticism of the 1963 famous March on Washington – the march that we associate with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech – because the speakers’ list did not include women. Her feminism took priority over her commitment to civil rights if the former did not have the same respect as the latter.

Other conditions plagued Murray throughout her life. She was perpetually financially strapped, was often severely underweight perhaps related to a thyroid problem and she was gay, all of which contributed to her emotional breakdowns, given that homosexuality until 1973 was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Doctors diagnosed her as a schizophrenic after stating that “she was a homosexual.” (Years later, during the 1960s after she was credited with ensuring that the prohibition against sex discrimination was included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, she applied for a senior government job but was rejected after the FBI vetting obtained her earlier hospital files.) Except for her homosexuality, Murray gradually related her life struggles to ER over the years, whose own life-long struggle with depression would have made her empathic. As for her being gay, Bell-Scott speculates the Eleanor sensed her sexual orientation, given that for all the time she knew Pauli she never talked about a man in a romantic sense and when she did attend with her partner one of ER’s lunches she had never seen her so happy.

Both women exchanged acts of kindness and mutual support. When Murray was denied entrance to Harvard as a student of advanced legal studies because of her sex, Eleanor convinced her husband to write a letter to the President of Harvard, his alma mater, and weigh in on her behalf. Although he was not successful, Murray did not forget his effort. At the same time, she could be an ethical scourge and had no compunction about writing an excoriating poem, “Mr. Roosevelt Regrets,” after the President released a “mealy-mouthed” statement about the 1943 Detroit riot. Yet she was also capable of writing shortly before FDR’s death a generous Father’s Day missive to a President that she had never met or voted for. After his death, she wrote a heartfelt bereavement letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, and a poem, “The Passing of F.D.R.” which I think bears some resemblance to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” after the death of Lincoln. After their last meeting shortly before ER’s death, Murray sent Roosevelt a letter of birthday congratulations and reflections on their relationship. “You have been one of my most important models – one who combines graciousness with moral principles, straightforwardness with kindliness, political shrewdness with idealism, courage with generosity, and most of all an outgoingness which never falters, no matter what the difficulties may be.” Mrs. R., as Murray called her, had become a mentor and remained an inspiration to her for the rest of her life. In turn Roosevelt became a sort of surrogate mother after Murray’s two aunts (who were like parents to her) died. She also tempered Murray’s political radicalism, even leading her to support candidates such as Adlai Stevenson who strayed far from Murray’s civil rights vision. Perhaps most importantly, each was solicitous of each other’s health and well-being.

Patricia Bell-Scott spent two decades researching and writing this ground-breaking book about a largely unknown militant activist whose personal struggles about being gay and suffering bouts of physical illness and emotional breakdown intersected with her public agitation for civil rights and gender equality. Her life alone has a salient resonance for our times. The second layer of this wonderful biography, her lengthy relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, adds another dimension to the richness of this book. That two people who often disagreed but could still be friends is a timely reminder in a time in which ideology and politics polarize people. One of the most memorable moments occurs on the last page in which Murray in 1984, a year before her own death, is invited to speak at a conference commemorating the centennial of ER’s birth. She spoke of how Eleanor Roosevelt was the “role model for women of my generation.” Anyone who reads The Firebrand and the First Lady will appreciate that ER was much more to Pauli Murray.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin LadenHis website is

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