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Virginia Durr: Civil rights activist who suffered ostracism in support of Rosa Parks and the black struggle

The Independent revisits the life of a notable figure. This week: Virginia Durr, from 8 March 1999

Andrew D. Roberts
Saturday 18 August 2018 12:10 BST
Ms Durr with Rosa Parks in 1981 in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where both received honorary doctorates from Mount Holyoke College
Ms Durr with Rosa Parks in 1981 in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where both received honorary doctorates from Mount Holyoke College (Birmingham Public Library Archive)

Virginia Durr was a well-born white Southern lady who devoted most of her life to campaigning for civil rights in the United States.

In the 1950s, she and her husband, lawyer Clifford Durr, were in the thick of the civil rights struggle in Alabama. Few local whites supported them but they were buoyed by faith in the federal courts and by friendship with black neighbours, whose political self-confidence was being bolstered by Martin Luther King and other community leaders.

Both Durrs were staunch Southern purists, and for Virginia especially their struggle was against more than local racists: it was against the unholy alliance between such racists and northern US big business, which bore down on poorer whites as well as blacks, and meant Southern reactionaries dominated Congressional committees. Supremely assured, outspoken and funny, Virginia Durr often seemed to her friends to constitute the most effective left wing movement in America.

She was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose heavy industry, as she soon learned, was very much at the mercy of foreign absentee landlords. Her family, the Fosters, were minor aristocrats with a dissident streak. Virginia’s paternal grandfather, a doctor, had owned a plantation which once had a dozen slaves, but he had opposed war against the Union. Her father, a Presbyterian pastor, was declared a heretic by his congregation for doubting the literal truth of certain Bible stories. Thereafter, Virginia’s lot was genteel poverty; though she went to finishing school in New York, she had to leave Wellesley College after two years for want of money.

By the time she married in 1926, Virginia had begun to question the social order. Her brother-in-law Hugo Black – later a Supreme Court justice – set her thinking about labour problems. She had mixed with black students and had learned women could be more than wives and mothers.

In Birmingham, the Durrs witnessed some of the worst effects of the Depression and in 1933 they moved to Washington and were able to make their mark on the New Deal. Cliff worked at first in a government agency set up to rescue banks; in 1941 he moved to the Federal Communications Commission where he put public service broadcasting on a firm footing. Virginia worked on a Democratic committee trying to abolish the poll tax, which in many Southern states effectively denied the vote to poor whites as well as blacks – one new friend was the young Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Voting Rights Act in 1965 finally swept away this injustice.

In 1938 Virginia returned to Birmingham for a meeting of the colour-blind Southern Conference for Human Welfare: it felt as if “the whole South was coming together to make a new day”. In 1941 she became vice chairman of the committee against the poll tax, and with help from Eleanor Roosevelt gained a partial victory the following year when Congress exempted servicemen in federal elections. Reading Bleak House, Virginia wondered if her family saw her as Dickens’ Mrs Jellaby, for her campaigning now had to be juggled with raising three daughters. Yet the Durrs didn’t hesitate to take in Jessica (Decca) Mitford and her baby daughter, when Decca’s husband Esmond Romilly went off to war.

Segregation was widespread in the South in the 1940s and 1950s (Getty)

In 1947, anti-Communist purges in the US were well under way. Virginia was never asked to join the party; she was, after all, famously indiscreet. The one party which did appeal was Henry Wallace’s Progressive group, for whom she campaigned in 1948. In the same year, Cliff resigned from the FCC rather than have to administer the “loyalty oaths” which Truman now required of government servants. Witch hunters also forced him out of a job in Denver, so in 1952 the Durrs returned to Alabama, where at least, said Cliff, “I know who the sons-of-bitches are”.

Cliff opened a law office in his home town of Montgomery and Virginia became his secretary. In 1954, Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi, tried to show that she – and by association Mr Justice Black – was part of a Red conspiracy. This racist bully – “common as pig’s tracks”, said Virginia – reckoned without her skills in wire-pulling, or her ability to hold her tongue when silence was the best weapon.

Later in 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools. In Montgomery, among those who helped black children settle into formerly all-white schools was a friend of the Durrs, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress. In December 1955 she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. It was Cliff who had her released from custody, and he helped her decide to test the constitutionality of such segregation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People funded the case, taken up by local lawyer Fred Gray. Meanwhile the black people of Montgomery organised a year long bus boycott, until the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mrs Parks. The Durrs were shunned by almost all their white neighbours. Cliff’s practice – which he kept going until 1965 – was sustained by clients who mostly could not pay. Yet increasingly the Durrs were sought out by curious and admiring outsiders, including several British graduate students. Virginia’s feelings towards certain northern activists however, were ambivalent. Brave and bright they might be, but too often they treated the Durr home as a free hotel – and after all, they could always fly to safety.

By the late 1960s desegregation in the South was far advanced, but for Virginia the end of one struggle was the beginning of another. Votes for all seemed to serve only to entrench demagogue George Wallace, while black students seemed indifferent to the efforts of their elders and cynical about the state as a potential force for good. All the time, life for the Durrs became easier. At home they were no longer ostracised and Cliff was invited to lecture in Europe. His death in 1975 was a huge loss, but it helped that by then Virginia’s memories were much in demand: a series of interviews over three years yielded an autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle (1985), which admirably caught the salt savour of her storytelling.

The Durrs combated racism in Birmingham, Alabama and Washington DC (Getty)

In 1980 she was asked to speak at Radcliffe College and said: “They tell me to talk about myself, and I find that hard to do in 20 minutes.” She visited China and made further trips to England. She loved English gardens, especially “Sissinghoist” – Sissinghurst, near Cranbrook in Kent – and indulged epicurean tastes that surprised those who had got to know her amid the plain living and high thinking of the Pea Level – the Durr farm outside Montgomery.

Eating snails after the opera at Covent Garden was a pleasure that had to be repeated. Her directness was ever a delight: “Why don’t they look o-pressed?” she asked of the crowds in Petticoat Lane. She was a tireless correspondent, mingling hard personal questions with political comment that became ever more scathing as the US and Britain lurched to the right.

In summer, Durr held court on Martha’s Vineyard, in the house of her daughter Lucy and son-in-law Sheldon Hackney. It was there she celebrated her 90th birthday, “in the pink”, surrounded by a host of friends and descendants: she had 11 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Past battles were fondly recalled and Virginia took the starring role in a high-powered seminar on democracy and equality. Few, surely, have lived this century so fully.

Andrew D Roberts

An appreciation by Leonard Miall

Virginia and Clifford Durr were my next-door neighbours on Seminary Hill, outside Alexandria, Virginia, when I went to live there early in 1946. Virginia was a warm-hearted, happy-go-lucky sort of person whose domestic arrangements always seemed to be slightly scatty. One of her four daughters would often come over saying: “Momma has run out of sugar. Could you please fill up this cup for her?” It was not that she was a sponger. She was just not very well organised and her daughters reflected the trait. She said to one of them: “Tilla, you look as though you have just come out of a documentary!”

She often had British guests staying. During the war, Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly and his wife Jessica Mitford made a temporary home there. Romilly went off to war and was killed in 1941. Decca moved to California, remarried, and became the highly successful author of such books as Hons and Rebels and The American Way of Death, which exposed malfeasance in the US undertaking business.

Four of us neighbours: Durr, Charles Kindleberger – who later had a major role in the Marshall Plan – Bill Livingstone, of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and I, used to take turns to drive the eight miles or so into Washington. Cliff had been a Rhodes Scholar and loved to reminisce about Oxford. As a leading member of the Federal Communications Commission he was vigilant in making American radio stations honour the public service pledges for which they had been awarded franchises to broadcast. Such obligations have long since gone by the board.

When it was Cliff’s turn to provide the car, Virginia would happily borrow a vehicle from one of the other neighbours to do her shopping. She kept a horse – which her daughters used to ride – and a rather fierce rooster which frightened my eldest son. There were always political gatherings taking place at the Durrs’. Her brother-in-law Hugo Black, a Justice of the Supreme Court, was frequently present, and so was Lyndon Johnson, then a freshman senator. She was a very stimulating neighbour.

Virginia Heard Foster, civil rights activist: born Birmingham, Alabama 6 August 1903; married 1926 Clifford Durr (died 1975; four daughters, and one son deceased); died Carlisle, Pennsylvania 24 February 1999.

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