Julianne Malveaux, an economist and author, is the author, most recently, of “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama, and Public Policy.”

Somehow, in 1938, a letter from an unknown, 28-year-old black activist caught the attention of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The writer was Pauli Murray, who had been denied admission to the University of North Carolina because of her race — and she was rightfully outraged. Perhaps it was the thoughtful passion of Murray’s words that captivated the first lady, who plucked the letter out of thousands.

“Can you, for one moment, put yourself in our place and imagine the feelings of resentment, the protest, the indignation, the outrage that would lie within you to realize that you, a human being, with the keen sensitivities of other human beings, were being set off in a corner, marked apart from your fellow human beings?” Murray wrote. “We cannot endure these conditions. Our whole being cries out against inequality and injustice.”

Though the missive was addressed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote back, somewhat tepidly but with a glimmer of encouragement: “The South is changing, but don’t push too fast. There is a great change in youth, for instance, and this is a hopeful sign.”

So began a decades-long correspondence between Murray and the first lady. Murray was blunt and honest as she wrote to Roosevelt and implored her to reach out to her husband about race matters. She was not the only one bending the first lady’s ear. Roosevelt also had relationships with the noted civil rights leaders Dorothy Height and Walter White . But Murray was an unknown. She dared raise her voice and lift her pen to challenge the first lady; she was a nimble activist, able to maintain the deference that allowed the connection to flourish.

"The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice" by Patricia Bell-Scott (Knopf)

Patricia Bell-Scott captures many of the nuances of this friendship in her thorough and engaging book, “The Firebrand and the First Lady.” She shares letters that the women exchanged, as well as details of their many meetings — at the White House and at Roosevelt’s homes in New York City and Hyde Park. She shows how the women influenced each other’s lives, with Roosevelt encouraging Murray toward caution and Murray pushing Roosevelt toward more aggressive action for racial justice.

Murray’s voice was certainly one of those (along with the NAACP’s White) who influenced Roosevelt to resign from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the organization refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. Murray also pleaded with Roosevelt to have the president intervene when Odell Waller, a black sharecropper, was sentenced to death after killing his white landlord and employer who cheated him of wages, and some say threatened him. Though the first lady was swayed, ultimately FDR was not. Still, Murray sent a grateful dispatch to her friend: “The magnificent effort you put forth in behalf of our delegation made us know you were bearing our burden with us and softened the steel which entered our souls.”

This book is as much a portrait of a friendship as it is a window into Murray’s world. Murray was quite an amazing individual. She was the first in her class at Howard University law school and the first African American to receive a doctor of judicial science degree from Yale Law School. She was also the first African American woman ordained as a minister in the Episcopal Church and was honored as an Episcopal saint in 2012. A Renaissance woman, teacher, leader and scholar, she made a difference. The author of “States’ Laws on Race and Color” (1950), Murray served on the 1961 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to address the way discrimination particularly affected African American women. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg named her as an honorary co-author in a brief because of her work on gender discrimination.

Life for Murray was no crystal stair, and her personal challenges were myriad. Bell-Scott, a professor emerita at the University of Georgia, presents them compassionately. Murray had a history of mental illness; only close friends knew that she had a few short stints in psychiatric hospitals. Her mental-health issues — some perhaps related to a thyroid problem — did not diminish her brilliance, but she was concerned that people might discount her work because of them. Adding to her worries was the fact that she was gay, which until 1973 was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.

Bell-Scott treads gently through the issue of Murray’s sexual orientation. In her 20s, Murray was arrested in male attire, using a man’s name, in a gender-bending move that may have tainted her future efforts to engage as a leader in the African American women’s community. Bell-Scott gingerly notes that Murray may have disclosed her challenges to Roosevelt, but she emphasizes that little could fracture the connection between the two women. Indeed, after one difficult period, Murray asked Roosevelt for respite at her country home, and Roosevelt was happy to oblige.

Roosevelt and Murray met for the last time in July 1962, just months before Roosevelt’s death. Bell-Scott includes a lovely photograph of the two women during that visit; sadly, it is one of the few images of Murray and Roosevelt in the book. Shortly thereafter, Murray sent Roosevelt a letter of birthday congratulations and reflections on their relationship. “You have been one of my most important models — one who combines graciousness with moral principles, straightforwardness with kindliness, political shrewdness with idealism, courage with generosity, and most of all an outgoingness which never falters, no matter what the difficulties may be.” Bell-Scott describes Murray as walking away “carrying the candle Eleanor Roosevelt had lit in her heart.”

Murray carried the candle into her later life, often speaking warmly about Roosevelt and her legacy. She was also more willing, as she grew older, to examine the openness and nerve required to embrace a new friend — and across such a wide barrier. Murray died in 1985 at age 74.

Amazement, annoyance, impatience, assistance, resistance, challenge, focus, concern and love flowed in the decades of correspondence between Murray and Roosevelt. There were so many times when these two women could have turned away from each other, severing a connection without acrimony, but with the simple assertion that things fall apart. Instead, through sheer determination, Murray and Roosevelt decided to be friends. Their lives were each the richer for it, and our lives are richer for the accounting of their friendship in this important book.

the firebrand and the first lady
Portrait of a Friendship:
Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Patricia Bell-Scott.
454 pp. $30