Virginia Durr

White Ally of the Civil Rights Movement

Virginia Durr and Rosa Parks
Virginia Durr and Rosa Parks Received Honorary Degrees from Mt. Holyoke College. Courtesy Birmingham Public Library

Virginia Durr Facts

Known for: civil rights activism; working to abolish the poll tax in the 1930s and 1940s; support for Rosa Parks
Occupation: activist
Dates: August 6, 1903 – February 24, 1999
Also known as:

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Ann Patterson Foster
  • Father: Stirling Johnson Foster, Presbyterian minister
  • Siblings: sister Josephine married future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black

Education:

  • Public schools in Alabama
  • Finishing schools in Washington, DC, and New York
  • Wellesley College, 1921 - 1923

Marriage, Children:

  • Husband: Clifford Judkins Durr (married April 1926; attorney)
  • Children: four daughters

Virginia Durr Biography:

Virginia Durr was born Virginia Foster in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1903. Her family was solidly traditional and middle class; as the daughter of a clergyman, she was part of the white establishment of the time.  Her father lost his clergy position, apparently for denying that the story of Jonah and the whale was to be understood literally; he attempted to make a success in various businesses, but the family’s finances were rocky.

She was an intelligent and studious young woman.  She studied at local public schools, then was sent to finishing schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.  Her father had her attend Wellesley, according to her own later stories, in order to ensure she’d find a husband.

Wellesley and the “Virginia Durr Moment”

Young Virginia’s support for Southern segregationism was challenged when, in the Wellesley tradition of eating at tables with a rotation of fellow students, she was forced to dine with an African American student.  She protested but was reprimanded for doing so.

  She later counted this as a turning point in her beliefs; Wellesley later named such moments of transformations “Virgina Durr moments.”

She was forced to drop out of Wellesley after her first two years, with her father’s finances such that she could not continue.  In Birmingham, she made her social debut.  Her sister Josephine married the attorney Hugo Black, a future Supreme Court justice and, at the time, likely involved with the Ku Klux Klan as were many of the Foster family connections.  Virginia began working in a law library.

Marriage

She met and married an attorney, Clifford Durr, a Rhodes scholar.  During their marriage they had four daughters. When the Depression hit, she became involved in relief work to help Birmingham’s poorest.  The family supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1932, and Clifford Durr was rewarded with a Washington, DC, job: counsel with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which dealt with failing banks.

Washington, DC

The Durrs moved to Washington, finding a home in Seminary Hill, Virginia.  Virginia Durr volunteered her time with the Democratic National Committee, in the Women’s Division, and made many new friends who were involved in reform efforts.

  She took up the cause of abolishing the poll tax, originally because it often was used to prevent women from voting in the South.  She worked with the Civil Rights Committee of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, lobbying politicians against the poll tax. The organization later became the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax (NCAPT).

In 1941, Clifford Durr transferred to the Federal Communications Commission. The Durrs remained very active in both Democratic politics and reform efforts.  Virginia was involved in the circle that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. She became the vice president of the Southern Conference.

Opposing Truman

In 1948, Clifford Durr opposed Truman’s loyalty oath for executive branch appointees and resigned his position over the oath.  Virginia Durr turned to teaching English to diplomats and Clifford Durr worked to revive his law practice.

  Virginia Durr supported Henry Wallace over the party’s nominee, Harry S Truman, in the 1948 election, and herself was the Progressive Party candidate for Senate from Alabama. She stated during that campaign

"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."

After Washington

In 1950, the Durrs moved to Denver, Colorado, where Clifford Durr took a position as an attorney with a corporation. Virginia signed a petition against US military action in the Korean War, and refused to retract it; Clifford lost his job over that.  He was also suffering from ill health.

Clifford Durr’s family lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and Clifford and Virginia moved in with them.  Clifford’s health recovered, and he opened his law practice in 1952, with Virginia doing the office work.  Their clientele was heavily African American, and the couple developed a relationship with the NAACP’s local head, E.D. Nixon.

Anti-Communist Hearings

Back in Washington, anti-Communist hysteria led to Senate hearings on Communist influence in the government, with Senators Joseph McCarthy (Wisconsin) and James O. Eastland (Mississippi) chairing the investigation. Eastland’s Internal Security Subcommittee issued a subpoena for Virginia Durr to appear with another Alabama advocate for civil rights for African Americans, Aubrey Williams, at a New Orleans hearing.

  Williams was also a member of the Southern Conference, and was president of the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Virginia Durr refused to give any testimony beyond her name and a statement that she was not a Communist.  When Paul Crouch, a former Communist, testified that Virginia Durr had been part of a Communist conspiracy in the 1930s in Washington, Clifford Durr attempted to punch him, and had to be restrained.

Civil Rights Movement

Being targeted by the anti-Communist investigations re-energized the Durrs for civil rights. Virginia became involved in a group where black and white women met regularly together in churches. The license plate numbers of the women participating were published by the Ku Klux Klan, and they were harassed and shunned, and so stopped meeting.

The couples’ acquaintance with E.D. Nixon of the NAACP brought them into contact with many others in the civil rights movement.  They knew Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.  Virginia Durr became friends with an African American woman, Rosa Parks. She hired Parks as a seamstress, and helped her obtain a scholarship to the Highlander Folk School where Parks learned about organizing and, in her later testimony, was able to experience a taste of equality.

When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to move to the back of the bus, giving her seat to a white man, E.D. Nixon, Clifford Durr and Virginia Durr came to the jail to bail her out and to consider, together, whether to make her case into the legal test case for desegregating the city’s buses.

  The Montgomery bus boycott that followed is often seen as the beginning of the active, organized civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Durrs, after supporting the bus boycott, continued to support civil rights activism.  The Freedom Riders found accommodations at the home of the Durrs. The Durrs supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and opened their home to visiting members. Journalists coming to Montgomery to report on the civil rights movement also found a place at the Durr home.

Later Years

As the civil rights movement turned more militant and the black power organizations were skeptical of white allies, the Durrs found themselves at the margins of the movement that they had contributed to.

Clifford Durr died in 1975.  In 1985, a series of oral interviews with Virginia Durr were edited by Hollinger F. Barnard into Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr.  Her uncompromising characterizations of those she liked and did not like give a colorful perspective to the people and times she knew. The New York Times in reporting the publication described Durr as having "an undiluted combination of Southern charm and steely conviction." 

Virginia Durr died in 1999 in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. The London Times obituary called her “the soul of indiscretion.”

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Virginia Durr." ThoughtCo, Jun. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/virginia-durr-biography-3528652. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, June 5). Virginia Durr. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/virginia-durr-biography-3528652 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Virginia Durr." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/virginia-durr-biography-3528652 (accessed December 15, 2017).