Civil Rights Activist and Author
Virginia Foster Durr was born near Birmingham in 1903, her long life bridged the post-Civil War era to the American Civil Rights Movement. The granddaughter of a former slave holder, she became an ostracized anti-racist convert. Her amazing life of determined tenacity testifies to the ability of an individual to be transformed by observation, experience, and basic sense of right and wrong from an unquestioning racist to a courageous activist, organizer, and leader for social justice.
Durr grew up in Birmingham early in the 20th century in a closely knit family. Her family attended Ku Klux Klan parades and taught her that the KKK were protectors of Southern womanhood. As a young woman, she attended Wellesley College. In her Sophomore year, she faced the difficult choice of either agreeing to eat at the same table as a Black student or leaving school. She chose to stay at school, which she considered a great intellectual and enriching experience.
Due to a family financial crisis in 1923, she was forced to leave Wellesley and returned to Birmingham, Alabama, where she met her future husband, Alabama attorney and Rhodes Scholar, Clifford Durr. They married and in 1933 moved to DC and both became avid New Dealers. In Washington, her political consciousness grew and she became very active through Mrs Roosevelt and the Democratic Women’s groups in organizing to eliminating the poll tax, which prevented poor people, most women and Blacks from voting.
In 1938, Virginia Durr became a founding member of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare (SCHW), which became the main vehicle for her fight against the poll tax. SCHW also worked to bring together disparate liberal groups in the South to end violence against labor organizations and to work toward integration. As a founder of this organization and as a member of a variety of other organization like and the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), she challenged White privilege. She worked closely with friends like Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Baker , Mary McCloud Bethune to courageously challenge the racist social, economic, and political attitudes on a community and national level.
Her opposition to all Jim Crow’s segregation laws caused her to be castigated, denounced, and shunned by a large segment of the white community in Montgomery Birmingham. Neither she, nor her husband, Clifford, was deterred from their determined work to erode institutionalized racism and civil liberties.
The Durrs supported the Highland Folk School, and got a scholarship for Mrs Parks which provided her with an experience that would lead to the Montgomery bus boycott. Years later in December, 1955, it was the Durrs who bailed their long-time friend, Rosa Parks out of jail after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
Because of their anti-racist work, the Durrs were hounded by the FBI. Virginia was even accused of being a communist and called before a Congressional committee chaired by Senator Jim Eastland, who believed everyone in the Civil Rights Movement was a communist. As the senator tried to interrogate Virginia, she stood silent and in Southern belle fashion, she defiantly began to powder her nose.
Durr provided White Southern women, as well as all White women, with an important role model and helped imbue them with the courage to step from behind old barriers of ignorance and racial bigotry onto a path illuminated by freedom leading toward democratic justice.