Virginia Foster Durr
|Born||August 6, 1903|
|Died||February 24, 1999(aged 95)|
Virginia Foster Durr (August 6, 1903 – February 24, 1999) was an American white civil rights activist and lobbyist. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1903 to Dr. Sterling Foster, an Alabama Presbyterian minister, and Ann Patterson Foster. At 22 she married lawyer Clifford Durr, with whom she had 5 children, one of whom died in infancy. Durr was a close friend of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, and was sister-in-law (through her sister's marriage) of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who sat on many crucial civil rights cases. Her circle of friends extended to Alger Hiss. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2006.
Background and education
Durr was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was raised by black women but was also taught that the Ku Klux Klan were protectors of southern womanhood. One of her grandfathers had owned a plantation and slaves, while the other was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Durr attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts from 1920 to 1923. Durr has explicitly acknowledged Wellesley as the catalyst of her moral transformation from a racist to civil rights activist. She came to question segregation after her experience with her college's dining hall. The dining halls had a rotating tables policy that required students to eat meals with random students regardless of their race. Durr, uncomfortable with this idea, protested this rule, but ended up dealing with it after the head of her house threatened to release her from the university if she didn't embrace the rotating tables policy.
Durr was forced to withdraw from Wellesley College due to financial reasons in 1923 and returned home to Birmingham, Alabama.
After withdrawing from school in 1923, Virginia Durr returned home to Birmingham, Alabama where she met her future husband Clifford Durr at church. Virginia Durr and Clifford Durr got married in April, 1926, and had five children. Clifford married Virginia Foster Durr in hopes of her being a house wife and great social figure while he became a very successful and influential corporate lawyer. While accepting the role of housewife, Virginia was bothered by the condition many workers and their families were in, which she had noticed while volunteering in social work for churches. Virginia and Clifford Durr gave legal, financial, and moral support to civil rights activists.
In 1933 Durr moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. after Clifford was appointed legal counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and later Chief Legal Counsel to the Defense Plant Corporation. Eventually it was where they became New Dealers. It was in Washington where Virginia Durr's activism began. She met important people through her husband's New Deal contacts, some of whom changed her conservative views on civil matters. While her husband was working for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Durr joined the Woman's National Democratic Club. In 1938, she was one of the founding members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), an interracial group working to reduce segregation and improve living conditions in the South. The group was formed in part as a response to Franklin Roosevelt's proclamation that the South was the leading economic problem in the nation.
By 1941, Durr became the vice president of the SCHW's civil rights subcommittee. Working together with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she lobbied for legislation to abolish the poll tax. She worked jointly with liberal political leaders in order to gain the necessary support needed for legislation, which ultimately resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Durr later recalled her work with the SCHW as one of the happiest events of her life.
Progressive Party candidate
Quote from an obituary written by Patricia Sullivan:
"Mrs. Durr ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia on the Progressive ticket in 1948. At that time she said, "I believe in equal rights for all citizens and I believe the tax money that is now going for war and armaments and the militarization of our country could be better used to give everyone in the United States a secure standard of living."
During the McCarthy era, a time where there was intense anti-communist suspicion in the United State where one made accusations of disloyalty without proper evidence, Durr was called to New Orleans to appear before Senator James Eastland's Internal Security Committee, where they investigated suspected Communists. Because the Durrs did not openly condemn communism, anti-Communist activists often targeted them. At the committee, Durr gave her name, assured them that she was not a Communist, and then refused to answer any further questions.
Durr's activism started once she joined the local Council of Human Relations, Montgomery's only interracial political organization. Durr supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers by housing and taking care of many volunteers who came to Montgomery to work on voter registration issues. She became the "unofficial den mother for young activists," close friend Dorothy M. Zeller says. Both Clifford and Virginia supported the Voting Rights Act, as well as provided legal advice to many blacks facing jail time and lawsuits despite the criticism they received from their white colleagues. They supported the sit-in movement and Freedom Riders. Virginia and her husband offered sleeping space to students coming from the North to protest. Through the couple's work for civil rights, they became close associates of E. D. Nixon, who was the president of the Montgomery NAACP chapter.
When Virginia arrived at Montgomery in 1951, she recalled, "When I came here, there were two groups of United Church Women, one black and one white." A group of people in her town arranged to have integrated church meetings of black and white women. There was a lot of opposition against the integrated meetings, from the locals as well as from within the church. In her autobiography, Mrs. Durr wrote how the head of the United Church Women in the South (UCWS, an integration group) came to one of the meetings. Opponents of the meeting took the license plate numbers from the cars, and later published the addresses and telephone numbers of the members in an Alabama Ku Klux Klan magazine named "Sheet Lightning." The women of the UCWS received harassing phone calls. Some had family members who publicly distanced themselves from their activities, because it was bad for business. As a result, the women became too afraid to continue their meetings and the group broke up.
Virginia Durr met Rosa Parks through close friend E.D. Nixon, who worked with Parks during his time working with the NAACP. Durr employed Rosa Parks part-time as a seamstress; she sewed for Virginia and her children, and after a while Virginia considered Parks a close friend. In an exclusive interview with Eyes on the Prize Virginia goes in more depth about their relationship, "I went to see her and took her some clothes and took her some of my daughters' and we, they, they, she fixed the clothes for them and I'd often stay and help her. Mrs. Parks was a really lovely woman". During the summer of 1955, Myles Horton, a close friend of Durr, asked her to recommend a black person to attend workshops at Highlander Folk School, the purpose of which was to put into effect the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision. Durr arranged a full scholarship for Rosa Parks to go to the school in Tennessee. It was here where Rosa Parks experienced true equality for the first time in her life. In December 1955, Virginia and Clifford, along with E.D. Nixon, bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white person. Afterwards, the Durrs, along with the NAACP, aided Rosa Parks in bringing her case to the Supreme Court. Parks' actions sparked what we know of now as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Virginia and Clifford supported by all means.
Virginia and her husband also had associations with Martin Luther King Jr., as he and his wife sent the Durrs a postcard from their trip to India in 1959. In March 1965, during the Selma to Montgomery march, the Durrs housed many of the volunteers in their home. In her autobiography, she recalls I spent all my time making coffee and frying bacon and eggs for them.  After the boycott, Virginia remained an involved civil rights activist, including working for a variety of organizations such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She continued traveling and speaking across the country to colleges, community groups, and civil rights commemorations.
Clifford Durr died on May 12, 1975 at age 76 and Virginia Durr continued to write and speak about political issues. Mrs. Durr remained active in state and local politics until she was in her nineties. In 1985 she published her autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle. She continued being politically active until a few years before her death. Virginia Foster Durr died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on February 24, 1999, at the age of 95.
Upon hearing of Durr's death, Rosa Parks said Durr's "upbringing of privilege did not prohibit her from wanting equality for all people. She was a lady and a scholar, and I will miss her." President Bill Clinton said after her death: "Her courage, outspokenness, and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped change this nation forever."
Durr published her memoir, Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr, in 1990, almost a decade before her death.
Her memoirs cover the New Deal era, the beginning of the Cold War, her participation in the US presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, Anti-Communism and McCarthyism, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Of note is the account of her acquaintance with Alger Hiss ("a charming and attractive fellow") and of her version of the breakdown of his marriage with Priscilla Hiss. During the 1930s in Washington, DC, Durr knew the Hisses through Marnie and Henry Abbott, the latter descended from the family of US President John Adams. Some years later, she saw Priscilla Hiss at the wedding of the oldest child of Clark Foreman (founder of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and a Wallace aide during the 1948 elections). Aside from aging past point of recognition, Mrs. Hiss (according to Durr), was "terribly bitter" about her separation from Alger Hiss:
He [Hiss] became a symbolic hero, particularly to a lot of rich women here in New York. And they just took him away from me. They surrounded him and made him a hero and became worshippers, formed a cult almost.
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- Huston, Luther A. (23 July 1948). "Politicians Scarce Among Delegates". New York Times. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
- Durr, Virginia Foster (1990). Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr. University of Alabama Press. pp. 202–206 ("cult" p. 204)./
- "Inductees". Alabama Women's Hall of Fame. State of Alabama. Retrieved February 20, 2012.
- Dreier, Peter (2012). The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. New York: Nation Books. pp. 196–199. ISBN 1568586817.
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- "Durr biographies". aum.edu. Archived from the original on 2013-11-04. Retrieved 2013-11-04.
- Brown, Sarah. "Clifford Durr". encyclopediaofalabama.org.
- Chappell, David (1996). Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0801852343.
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- "Jewish Currents May 2006 - They Stood Up". www.jewishcurrents.org. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
- Durr, Virginia (1990). Outside the Magic Circle. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. pp. 243, 245, 325. ISBN 0817305173.
- "H-Net Discussion Networks -". h-net.msu.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
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- "Durr, Virginia Foster (1903-1999)". kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
- Robinson, Doug. "Virginia Heard Durr (Foster) "(1903 - ", "1999)", " "". geni.com.
- "Virginia Foster Durr". www.awhf.org.
Durr, Virginia Foster (1990). Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr. University of Alabama Press. pp. 202–206 ("cult" p. 204).
- Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years, edited by Patricia Sullivan (New York: Routledge, 2003). ISBN 0-415-94516-X
- Dreier, Peter (2012). The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. New York: Nation Books. p. 196-199. ISBN 1568586817