Sunday, December 04, 2016

Lessons from a survivor

Patricia Bell-Scott's The Firebrand and the First Lady -- Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice was a good book to read in the days following the election. However bleak our times may seem, it's worth staying aware of the brave and terrible struggles that have won us whatever is good in our country.

Pauli Murray, an obscure young Black activist, improbably forced her way into the patrician First Lady's affections, writing letter after letter alternately upbraiding, cajoling, congratulating, and demanding more equitable treatment for her people. The president's wife was 26 years older, both privileged and constrained by her husband's political career, insulated by her class from direct experience of the privations of Depression, yet determined to be on the side of "the people," a group that gradually, more and more, came to include Black people.

Murray is the vivid presence and center of this book, despite its organization around the two women's unlikely friendship; think of it as Murray's biography.

The label "firebrand" was ER's description of Murray. And no wonder. Murray's first letter in 1938 complained that President Franklin Roosevelt had lauded the University of North Carolina as a progressive institution at just the moment it was refusing her admission on the ground of her race. Two years later, Murray was back in touch with ER after being arrested for refusing to move to the back of a segregated interstate bus in Virginia. Not long after that, Murray became the field secretary for the Workers Defense League's campaign on behalf of Odell Waller, a Black sharecropper facing execution for killing a white landlord in self-defense. Murray, in tandem with Waller's mother, mobilized thousands of supporters, white and Black, to demand a reduced sentence. Roosevelt was persuaded to approach the Governor of Virginia and to try to push her very reluctant husband to intervene in the case. Their efforts failed; Waller was executed on July 2, 1943.

The struggle to save Waller led Murray go to law school at Howard University where she overcame discouragement from male professors and led student sit-ins to integrate lunch counters in the District of Columbia. Mrs. Roosevelt invited her "firebrand" friend to tea at the White House at this time. Also at this time, Murray's tortured struggle to come to terms with her attachments to female friends caused emotional breakdowns and even landed her in a mental institution. Homosexuality was considered a perverted "mental disorder." A concept of healthy homosexuality would not be invented for another 30 years. Bell-Scott quotes a painful letter Murray wrote to an aunt:

This little 'boy-girl' personality as you jokingly call it sometimes gets me into trouble. And to try to live by society's standards always causes me such inner conflict that at times it's almost unbearable. I don't know whether I'm right or whether society (or some medical authority) is right -- I only know how I feel and what makes me happy. The conflict rises up to knock me down at every apex 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.

In that last fear she was correct. Despite graduating from Howard with high honors, she was excluded from further legal study at Harvard for being both Black and a woman. She earned an additional law degree at Boalt Hall at Berkeley, but despite her accomplishments couldn't get a government job in the McCarthy-ite 1950s. Suspicions about her sexual orientation were an added strike against her on top of her work for racial justice. At one point, even Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP wouldn't hire her because of such rumors. Through all this Eleanor Roosevelt remained a solicitous correspondent whose friendship strengthened Murray. By then, also, Murray had established a stable, accepting relationship with Renee Barlow with whom she had worked at a law office.

By the beginning of the 1960s, Murray had added another justice struggle to her plate:

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 ...

ER died in 1962; in 1966, Murray became one of the founders of the National Organization for Women; worked to keep sex discrimination as an element in the Civil Rights Act; and so influenced future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that Ginsberg credited Murray with co-authorship of the brief that established sex discrimination as unconstitutional.

And then -- having taken on race, sex, and gender struggles, Murray felt called to break one more barrier, enrolling at General Theological Seminary in 1973 and taking a place among the first cohort of women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.

"My ordination as a Negro woman priest comes some 172 years after the first Afro-American male priest was ordained ...The Holy Spirit in our Church moves slowly at times, but it does move."

In 2012, twenty-seven years after her death, the Episcopal Church added Murray to its calendar of Holy Men, Holy Women who are held up as worthy examples of godly lives.

I'll give the last word to Murray here:

“If anyone should ask a Negro woman what is her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived.’ ”

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