TO: Interested persons FROM: Julian Bond
Re: a noble soul has passed on.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR, 1903-1999 by Joan C. Browning
White women who publicly protested racial segregation in the South of my youth were few enough that one could know, or at least know of, most of them. By the 1960s, they enthusiastically supported the youth rebellion that began with the sit-in movement and Freedom Rides. These women were important role models. By their life and witness, they proved that one could be white, southern, and female without being racist. Though I saw her only a few times, Virginia Durr was prominent among those white women who inspired me. I am remembering her today because I learned that she died last night.
Virginia Durr came to Charlottesville in the early 1990s, with her Montgomery, Alabama, friend and sister activist Jo Anne Robinson. Julian Bond had invited them to tell another generation about how the Montgomery Bus Boycott actually started and succeeded. She was gracious and witty and thoroughly committed to making ours a better world then, as always. It was my last visit with her.
When today's youth ask me why more southern white women didn't stand up for racial justice, I use a quote on page 245 in her book, Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr [The University of Alabama Press, 1985, Simon & Schuster 1987].
When I came here [Montgomery, Alabama, 1951], there were two groups of United Church Women, one black and one white *
A group of people in town decided to integrate the two groups* They got together and formed an integrated prayer group. We used to meet and pray and sing and hold hands and have a cup of tea afterward. We always met in Negro churches * We grew to be about a hundred women, black and white, from all over the state.
The group stayed together all during the bad times until the last meeting * The head of the United Church Women in the South, Mrs. M. E. Tilly from Atlanta, came to our meeting* people in Montgomery who were fighting integration * took all the license numbers of our cars at the meeting * He published the names and telephone numbers and addresses of everybody at the United Church Women meeting in his paper, Sheet Lightning [Alabama Ku Klux Klan publication]. The women began to get terrible calls at night and were harassed in other ways. That broke the group up. We never met after that. The women became frightened when their names were published. Even their husbands began getting phone calls from people who threatened to stop doing business with them if their wives went to any more integrated meetings.
Several husbands took out notices in the papers disassociating themselves from their own wives. One man disassociated himself from his aunt, and another disassociated himself from his daughter. They were scared of the repercussions of their business.
Studs Terkel wrote in the Foreword to Outside the Magic Circle [page xi]: Virginia Durr said it: there were three ways for a well-brought up young Southern white woman to go.
She could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern belle. Gracious to "the colored help," flirtatious to her powerful father-in-law, and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. In short, going with the wind.
If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy*on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one stunning Southern belle.
Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruises of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot. Her reward would be a truly examined life. And a world she would otherwise never have known.
It is the third road Virginia Durr traveled.
Her long time friend and associate, Patricia Sullivan, and I discussed Virginia Durr when we were together at the American Historical Association meeting in Washington last month. Pat, another white woman who took the third road, is editing Virginia's letters for publication. Pat wrote *Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era* (The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), a wonderful study of progressives including Virginia Durr. Today, Pat Sullivan wrote the following obituary.
To Pat's obituary, let me say that in addition to her blood kin, Virginia Foster Durr is survived by scores of people whose progressive activism she encouraged. -30-
Activist Virginia Foster Durr dies at 95 Obituary written by Patricia Sullivan
Virginia Foster Durr, long time civil rights activist, died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on February 24. She was 95 years old. Virginia Durr was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Wellesley College. In 1933 she and her husband Clifford Durr moved to Washington, where he joined the staff of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. They both became ardent New Dealers. Their home on Seminary Hill in Alexandria, Virginia was a popular gathering place for assorted New Deal Senators and Representatives, labor organizers and civil rights activists.
In 1938, Mrs. Durr was a founding member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), an interracial group that went on to challenge racial segregation in the South. She was also a leader of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax. Mrs. Durr worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt in lobbying for legislation to abolish the poll tax, a device that kept black and white southerners from voting.
Mrs. Durr ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia on the Progressive Party 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."
The Durrs returned to Alabama in 1951 and settled in Montgomery. They joined the local branch of the NAACP, and became acquainted with local civil rights activists. After Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955, Mrs. Durr and her husband Clifford accompanied civil rights leader E.D. Nixon to bail Mrs. Parks out of jail. The Durrs actively supported the Montgomery bus boycott, and Clifford Durr aided in the case that ultimately led to the Supreme Court ruling barring segregation on Montgomery's busses.
During the early 1960s, the Durrs housed organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizers travelling in the Deep South. Mrs. Durr likened it to "running a station on the Underground Railroad." Without the students, she wrote, the movement "might have just died on the vine."
Mrs. Durr remained active in state and local politics until her early nineties, and spoke frequently around the country at colleges, to community groups and at civil rights commemorations. She receiveda to her powerful father-in-la honorary degrees from Wellesley College, Emory University, and the University of Alabama. In 1985, she published her autobiography, "Outside the Magic Circle." For the past twenty-five years, she has spent the summers on Martha's Vineyard with her daughter and son in law, Lucy and Sheldon Hackney.
Clifford Durr died in 1975. Survivors include four daughters, Ann Durr Lyon of Harrisburg, Pa., Lucy Durr Hackney of Philadelphia, Virginia Foster Durr of Sweden, Maine, and Lulah Durr Colan of Milwaukee; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. There will be a memorial service in Montgomery, Alabama on Sunday, February 28.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Alabama ETV Foundation, Alabama Public Television/ Durr Documentary Project, 1255 Madison Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 26107. (checks made payable to Alabama ETV Foundation). -30-
Sidebar: Statement by President & Mrs. Clinton The White House Office of the Press Secretary February 24, 1999 Statement by the President
Hillary and I are deeply saddened to hear of the death of Virginia Foster Durr. Throughout this century, America's long march towards freedom and justice has been the achievement of countless Americans - black and white - who risked their lives to lead us closer to our most cherished ideals. A white woman born to privilege in the Deep South, Mrs. Durr refused to turn a blind eye to racism and intolerance in our society. Her courage and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped change this nation forever. Hillary and I feel honored to have known and been inspired by a truly great American. Our thoughts and prayers are with her friends and family. -30-