Book Review: The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott

By David Brown posted 09-14-2016 15:10


Patricia Bell-Scott’s recent book, The Firebrand and the First Lady, details the friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, both of whom were instrumental in the struggle for social justice in the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and impact is well documented, but Murray’s story—that of an African American woman, member of the LGBTQ community, civil rights and women’s rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint—has fascinated me ever since our colleague Karen Nickless brought Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, to the attention of the National Trust.

Pauli Murray | Photo courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Early in 2015 we named the house a National Treasure, and we are working to support its preservation and listing as a National Historic Landmark, so the 2016 release of this book is timely. It has already raised the level of attention to the work and legacy of Murray while also showcasing the possibilities for using the place where she spent important parts of her childhood to further her legacy into the 21st century.

Bell-Scott’s work is rich in detail of the unlikely relationship built between Murray and “ER,” as the first lady is referred to throughout the book. It is also an excellent read. Pauli Murray was a trailblazer, often taking steps that other—and more celebrated—individuals would only follow in many years later. Bell-Scott notes that "Murray's politics, temperament, and resolve to be herself frequently frustrated her family, friends, and people in organizations she admired, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Episcopal Church." The author also suggests that "these difficulties also contributed to her marginalization, until recently, in the historical record."

Irin Carmon, the co-author of The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, points to Murray's role as a "before her time" brilliant, individualistic leader in a laudatory review of the book in The New York Times:

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.

Seeing the modest house that is being restored for the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham and reading Bell-Scott's book about the life that transformed—and continues to impact—so many other lives today, I am reminded of President Obama's message when he named Pullman a National Monument: "Places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary."

Pauli Murray's childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, is now being renovated for the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice | Credit: Barbara Lau 

Pauli Murray certainly came from a place that looked very ordinary. But her life, as chronicled in The Firebrand and the First Lady, is nothing short of extraordinary.

Near the end of this compelling book, which I highly recommend, Bell-Scott quotes Murray’s comments from a 1982 conference on ER’s role as first lady—the first major conference on that subject since her death two decades earlier. Previously, Murray had been reluctant to talk publicly about her friendship, but she hit her stride at the conference, describing ER’s impact on her 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, a product of late nineteenth century Victorianism, did just that, and she moved far beyond many of her contemporaries. I like to think that I am one of the young women of her time, touched by her spirit of commitment to the universal dignity of the human being created in the image of God (which we theologians call “imago dei”). Hopefully, we have picked up the candle that she lighted in the darkness and we are trying to carry it forward to the close of our own lives.

This quote—and the whole book—speak to how we can both challenge and support each other in our work toward social justice and human wholeness. There is much to consider in these few lines, especially in light of current events. I’m pleased that the National Trust is doing its part to ensure that the life and legacy of Pauli Murray, as seen through the place where she was nurtured, lives on, providing inspiration to us and to future generations.

Take action! Join us in urging the National Park Service to make Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, a National Historic Landmark.

David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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