Longlisted for the National Book Award
A groundbreaking book—two decades in the works—that tells the story of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist, granddaughter of a mulatto slave, and the first lady of the United States, whose ancestry gave her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, forged an enduring friendship that changed each of their lives and helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.
Pauli Murray first saw Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933, at the height of the Depression, at a government-sponsored, two-hundred-acre camp for unemployed women where Murray was living, something the first lady had pushed her husband to set up in her effort to do what she could for working women and the poor. The first lady appeared one day unannounced, behind the wheel of her car, her secretary and a Secret Service agent her passengers. To Murray, then aged twenty-three, Roosevelt’s self-assurance was a symbol of women’s independence, a symbol that endured throughout Murray’s life.
Five years later, Pauli Murray, a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer, wrote a letter to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt protesting racial segregation in the South. The president’s staff forwarded Murray’s letter to the federal Office of Education. The first lady wrote back.
Murray’s letter was prompted by a speech the president had given at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, praising the school for its commitment to social progress. Pauli Murray had been denied admission to the Chapel Hill graduate school because of her race.
She wrote in her letter of 1938:
“Does it mean that Negro students in the South will be allowed to sit down with white students and study a problem which is fundamental and mutual to both groups? Does it mean that the University of North Carolina is ready to open its doors to Negro students . . . ? Or does it mean, that everything you said has no meaning for us as Negroes, that again we are to be set aside and passed over . . . ?”
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Murray: “I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly . . . The South is changing, but don’t push too fast.”
So began a friendship between Pauli Murray (poet, intellectual rebel, principal strategist in the fight to preserve Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, cofounder of the National Organization for Women, and the first African American female Episcopal priest) and Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady of the United States, later first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women) that would last for a quarter of a century.
Drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts, and interviews, Patricia Bell-Scott gives us the first close-up portrait of this evolving friendship and how it was sustained over time, what each gave to the other, and how their friendship changed the cause of American social justice.
Bell-Scott (Life Notes), professor emerita of women's studies and family science at the University of Georgia, deftly reveals two women's crucial involvement in the struggle for civil rights. Pauli Murray, a young African American woman, crossed paths with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934 when Murray was living at Camp Tera, a New Deal facility for unemployed women. The burgeoning professional relationship between these two smart, strong-minded, and ambitious women developed into genuine affection. They shared similar ideas about social justice, and each chose her own course of action. The fascinating, complex Murray takes center stage in this absorbing historical page-turner. In the decades before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and Rosa Parks's 1955 bus protest, Murray challenged racial segregation at the University of North Carolina (1938) and on public transportation in Virginia (1940). As a law student in the early 1940s, she battled gender discrimination, foreshadowing her co-founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966. Until Roosevelt's death in 1962, she supported Murray's various projects and helped the younger woman with her career goals. Murray's considerable achievements weren't dependent on Roosevelt's assistance; Bell-Scott brilliantly shows that the friendship equally enriched both women. Illus.
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I've been fortunate to belong to a Book Club (BTL) that recognizes the importance of reading material, that gives us hope, strength and truths. This book is a gift to me as I find significance having been born in 1954.