Patricia Bell-Scott is Professor Emerita of Women's Studies, Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Georgia. Her previous books include Life Notes: personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women; Flat-Footed Truths: Telling Black Women's Lives, and Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters.
Her book The Firebrand and the First Lady explores the friendship between Pauli Murray, a human rights activist and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts interviews, she gives us the first close up portrait of this evolving friendship, how it was sustained over time, what each gave the other, how their friendship changed the cause of American social justice.
The New York Times Review of Books called it a tremendous book. For the Women’s Review of Books it is a vivid, detailed, compelling and absorbing portrait of these two individuals and the era in which they lived. It hass been featured on C-SPAN. It is a Washington Post Notable Book. Kirkus and Booklist called it the best book of the year, and our distinguished jury called it a Lillian smith book award winner.
In accepting her 2017 Lillian Smith Book Award, Professor Bell-Scott observed as follows:
I want to thank the Southern Regional Council, the University of Georgia Libraries, DeKalb County Public Library/Georgia Center for the Book, and Piedmont College for sponsoring the Lillian Smith Book Awards. I thank Dr. Toby Graham, University of Georgia Associate Provost and University Librarian, for his warm introduction, and I thank Ms. Jean Cleveland, Communications Director of the University of Georgia Libraries, for her part in facilitating the arrangements for today’s program. Finally, I want to thank my husband, Charles Vernon Underwood, and many of my friends and colleagues who are here today. Your support has been invaluable.
I am deeply honored to be one of this year’s recipients of the Lillian Smith Book Award. In fact, I am indebted to Lillian Smith on at least four counts. First of all, her activism and support of southern progressives, especially young people, demonstrated what it meant to be a woman of conscience. Second, her exemplary leadership as a white southerner determined to fight for social justice on her home turf gave courage to others, who could not and did not want to leave the South. Third, her contributions as a writer of deep psychological insight was a source of comfort to those grappling with the thorny interconnection of race, sex, and identity to white supremacy and misogyny. And fourth, I am indebted to Lillian Smith for her kindness and the hand of friendship she extended to the two women who are the subjects of my biography, The Firebrand and the First Lady. Without Lillian Smith, Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt would have been different people.
Lillian Smith and Eleanor Roosevelt were women of the same generation. They shared democratic values and they worked together in groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the Rosenwald Fund, and the Americans for Democratic Action. The correspondence between them speaks of their efforts to mobilize women. For example, on December 14, 1943, during War II after discrimination in housing, employment, and the military had sparked riots in several urban centers, Smith wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, “I have been trying for six or seven years to prove to white southern women of my social class that we can speak out plainly about racial democracy, that we can take a public stand against discrimination and even against segregation. . .” Like Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her prestigious post as first lady to advocate for the civil rights, Smith wrote again to the first lady, “I am known for my work with children of wealthy southern families, I have had a fortunate position in the South, and I have made the most of it.”
After the 1954 Brown decision, few politicians running for office in the South were willing to publicly endorse the Supreme Court ruling. But Lillian Smith audaciously backed a candidate in Georgia who did. That candidate, Grace Wilkey Thomas, was an Atlanta attorney, who ran for the Democratic nomination. Heartened by the prospect of a candidate who was female and who supported integration, Eleanor Roosevelt sent a contribution to the campaign. Thomas would lose, but in the end, Smith was convinced that the movement had made a small and important step forward. On September 10, 1954, she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt again: “. . . [T]he old rule has been broken. A state-wide politician did, for the first time since the Civil War, speak out for democracy and human rights. Her campaign will not be forgotten. . . My warmest thanks for your help; maybe it was worth it just for the look that came on the youngsters faces when they saw your check.”
Lillian Smith’s support was vital to Pauli Murray as well. It was to Smith that a young Murray confessed that she faced a heart-wrenching dilemma: whether to become a writer or lawyer? “I’m really a submerged writer,” Murray wrote to Smith and her partner, Paula Snelling, “but the exigencies of the period have driven me into social action.” This was a dilemma that Smith, a writer-activist herself, knew all to well. And she would offer Murray support wherever she could.
For example, Smith and Snelling published the first version of Murray’s epic poem, “Dark Testament,” in their journal, South Today. That poem would become the title work in Murray’s collection of the same name. Smith read multiple drafts of Murray’s family memoir, Proud Shoes. And when Smith thought that Murray’s narrative was becoming too academic, she would nudge Murray to be brave. In one letter, Smith wrote: “I want to spank you when you become the lawyer or the sociologist or begin using the technical jargon which is not the work of an artist; so I scold hard, hard to try to jolt you back. Don’t cover up your heart and your seeing mind; see it, feel it, imagine it—and all will be well.”
Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray were also impacted by Lillian Smith’s books. In 1956, during a critical period of Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign, the first lady sent Stevenson a copy of Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith’s penetrating critique of Southern racism. The first lady did this because she was hoping to broaden Stevenson’s understanding of the race problem.
The day before Murray had thyroid surgery, she lay in her hospital bed reading Lillian Smith’s The Journey. Murray, who was overwhelmed with concern for friends who had been summoned to testify before the McCarthy Committee—and she was also worried that she might be next--kept re-reading a passage about fear from The Journey, which I want to share with you: “But how hard it is, when we are struggling with fears, to think beyond ourselves and the present moment. Even the most responsible of us is not in a learning mood on those days, days which sometimes stretch into years, years when the quiet voice of reason is drowned out by the cries of the terrorized child within us.”
When Murray’s elderly aunts died, she turned to Eleanor Roosevelt and Lillian Smith for solace. Murray lobbied the NAACP to change its selection criteria for the Spingarn Medal, the Associations highest honor. The selection criteria required that the recipient be African American. Murray, in her usual fashion, took on the board. It was philosophically and morally wrong, she told NAACP Board Chairman Tobias Channing, for the nation’s premiere civil rights organization to deny the Spingarn to women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lillian Smith.
In 1962, Murray paid tribute to Smith again in an address entitled “Grace Under Pressure, given at an annual meeting of the National Council of Women in 1962. She borrowed the title from Ernest Hemingway, who coined the phrase, “grace under pressure,” to explain what he meant by courage. It took grace under pressure, Murray told the audience, for astronauts to brave the unknown and open a new frontier, for James Meredith to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi under military guard, for Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat to white passengers on a Montgomery bus knowing she would be arrested, and for Lillian Smith to write about the psychosis of white supremacy and align herself with the civil rights movement. As “women of conscience,” Murray told the audience, “We have the responsibility for carrying on the great pioneering tradition of the valiant women who have gone before.”
In closing, it is with gratitude that I accept this award and pay homage to the support Lillian Smith, Pauli Murray, and Eleanor Roosevelt gave each other. May we be nourished by their writings, imbued with their compassion, inspired by their example, and energized by their perseverance. Thank you.