The Firebrand and the First Lady highlights a decades-long friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and African American civil rights advocate, lesbian, author and brilliant attorney, Pauli Murray.
Pauli Murray was a driving force in the burgeoning civil rights movements, launching National Sharecroppers Week in 1940, organizing boycotts of whites-only restaurants, founding an advocacy campaign for Odell Waller's fight on death row and orchestrating protests over discrimination in the military, all the while writing newspaper and magazine articles as well as personal notes and missives to Eleanor Roosevelt (ER).
While the book is an engrossing (and enraging) tale of personal hardship in the midst of Jim Crow America, it is also a description of a tender intellectual, political and personal friendship between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, who answered her letters and celebrated her achievements. One reads of Murray's excitement before her first visit to the White House, her gratitude when convalescing in the Roosevelt home, and her furor when she writes to the President of the shortcomings of his actions.
As she worked to exhaustion for the rights of others, though, she also struggled with her lesbianism, which was deemed a sickness at the time. She had what she called a 'boy self' that she named Pete. She wrote that "this little boy/girl personality sometimes gets me into trouble. And to try to live by society's standards always causes me inner conflict that at times is almost unbearable. I don't know whether I'm right or whether society or some mental authority is right, I only know how I feel, and what makes me happy. This conflict rises up to knock me down at every apex I reach in my career, and because the laws of society do not protect me, I'm exposed to any enemy or person who may or may not want to hurt me."
Breaking Every Barrier
The author maintains that "Murray was one of the brightest and best trained civil rights attorneys in the nation, irrespective of race or sex. No law student was more decorated than Murray. She received a Rosenwald Fellowship whose previous holders "included such distinguished scholars, artists, and writers, as WEB Du Bois, Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston." Still no job offers in government, private practice, or the Academy came her way.
"According to the National Bar Association, they were only 59 black women attorneys in the United States" at the time. "Murray was one of two women to enroll in the [Howard University] class of 1944, and the only woman to complete the first year. Often seen trudging alone by herself, carrying a huge arm full of books, she stood out from her male peers and the stylish female undergraduates. She wore no make up. She kept your hair short and unprocessed. Her clothes were drab and worn. She often wore pants, which school administrators deemed inappropriate attire for nice young women. … Like many institutions of its kind, the law school at Howard was a male bastion. There were currently no women on the faculty although Allie M Cooper, the registrar, who was a Howard University law school graduate, taught a course between 1925 and 1930 without pay or recognition."
Murray was the top student in her class and many of the law professors at Howard University where she wanted to teach had gone to Harvard, but she was not admitted because of Harvard's refusal to accept women, which became a turning point for Murray. She had "entered law school preoccupied with the racial struggle and single mindedly bent upon becoming a civil rights attorney, but she would graduate an unabashed feminist, and take on sex discrimination – or Jane Crow, as she called it – as well."
Murray was encouraged to explore the parallels between racism and sexism by a "talented woman denied the distinguished history professorship she deserved, Caroline Ware. They would examine the intersection of sex and race inequality for the next 40 years, eventually serving together with Eleanor Roosevelt on President John F Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women and as cofounders of the National Organization for Women.
Later, Murray compiled and then published a 700+ page book that was a compendium of states laws on race and color. Published in 1951, it proved so popular that Thurgood Marshall dubbed it the "Bible" for civil rights attorneys. The American Civil Liberties Union made copies available to law libraries, black colleges, and progressive organizations across the nation.
Her memoir, Proud Shoes, was heralded. She taught in Africa, as well as Brandeis University.
At age 54 she became the Yale Class Marshall and was the first African American to earn a doctorate in the science of law from Yale, in June 1965. It was her third law degree.
Murray confided in her journal that she was "blessed beyond riches" when she met Irene Barlow, the office manager at a law firm she was hired in, and when they discovered they had much in common, a very close friendship developed. "Though Murray and Barlow never lived in the same apartment, together they opened a bank account, owned a car, vacationed, lunched with ER, and would eventually share the same burial plot. When they were unable to see each other, they spoke by phone, and they sprinkled their letters with pet names, such as Barney Google, Mrs. Marple, darling, and mushroom. Barlow sent care packages of vitamins and named Murray executor of her will. Murray kept Barlow's portrait on her mantle with family photos, which included the snapshot of ER with Murray's family. Unfortunately, Renee Barlow died at age 59 from an inoperable brain tumor.
Turning to Religion
Later in her life, Murray, who had always been a devout Episcopalian, enrolled in a seminary, despite the fact that the Episcopal Church did not allow the ordination of women. The year after it approved the ordination of women in 1976, Murray became the first African American woman priest in the history of the Episcopal Church. It was 172 years after the first African American male priest was ordained in 1807. She was elevated to Saint Hood by the Episcopal Church in July 2012, 27 years after her death from pancreatic cancer.