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
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
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
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
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
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 received
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
- - - - - - - - - -
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.