Grace and guts

Virginia Durr

Vol. 7, No. 5, 1985, pp. 17-21

Steve Suitts:

I have the privilege of introducing Virginia Durr, a remarkable Alabamian whose life, spanning more than eight decades of Southern history, chronicles the best aspirations of our region. In the great movements which the South has witnessed, which it has endured, and which it has triumphed in this century, Virginia Durr has been an irreplaceable part. It started even as she was a child.

At the age of six, in Birmingham, she went out to take a place in the day's great crusade--for prohibition in Alabama. Virginia, the daughter of one of Birmingham's most respected Presbyterian ministers got ready to march. She was handed a sign that read: "Please save my father from the demon rum."

Even at six she knew that the daughter of a well-known minister ought not make such a public declaration. For the first and perhaps only time, she decided to forgo participation in a political movement.

Not too much later, when across the South working people began to organize and the struggle of the times became one between labor and capital, Virginia Durr took up with labor. When the Depression hit, Virginia-vice-president of the Junior League of Birmingham--didn't see just the small niceties of country club parties, she saw the hungry bellies. She saw the children wearing flour sacks, and she began to make a difference in the way she lived her life and in the way that people had to endure their lives in the South.

Ten years before the creation of the Southern Regional Council, Virginia Durr became one of the young men and


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women who went to Washington with the New Deal. When Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the South was the nation's "number one economic problem," Virginia Durr already knew that. She was already working with a variety of Southerners concerned with the problems of poverty.

Virginia Durr was never, thank God, the soul of discretion. When, after World War II, the nation began to tolerate the intolerance of McCarthyism, when white liberals separated themselves from long-time friends and stood silent when they were persecuted, Virginia Durr stood up and shrieked in protest. When people were ostracized, Virginia Durr would invite the accused to dinner and drinks. She protested that people cannot be guilty by their associations.

Twenty-five years before the creation of the Southern Regional Council's Voting Rights Project, Virginia Durr knew that one of the keys to a democratic South lay in the voting rights of blacks and poor whites. She successfully led the anti-poll tax efforts throughout the region and in the halls of Washington.

Now for most people that would be a lifetime of accomplishment. But Virignia Durr was only getting started. When she returned to Alabama from Washington--because she would not hold her peace during the days of McCarthyism--she continued to work and to live a life which deserves all honor. When Rosa Parks decided she was not going to get up on the bus, Virginia Durr was there supporting that effort as an activist, as a friend, and as a white liberal.

When the Civil Rights Movement began to grow, the Durr farm near Montgomery was a center of activism, of retreat, and of planning for the defense of the defenseless. Long days and nights were spent there by many prominent leaders--and by many whom you never will know.

During the development of the anti-poverty programs, and later, the anti-war movement, the Durr farm continued to be a place where young men and women could understand that there had been others who came before them and that these would be others who would suppport them.

With the advent of the feminist movement, Virginia Durr was there. She said, "I've been doing that all my life." And she had. When it comes to speaking her mind, Virginia makes a few exceptions about being a Southern lady.

And now, in this age in which not fear but indifference causes inaction, Virginia Durr's continues to be the voice of encouragement. She is a woman who combines grace and guts. Her upbringing and even her voice reminds us of the accent of an aristocrat, of Southern high culture. But her beliefs, her actions, and her works are those of an egalitarian.

It's hard for me to recall Virginia without also recalling Cliff Durr. Their lives together showed how social commitment and personal loyalty to another can be lovingly and effectively combined. When Virginia faced Mississippi's Jim Eastland before the Senate witch hunt committee that he conducted in the South to find the communists and bolsheviks, she said, "My name is Virginia Durr. I'm the wife of Cliff Durr." A woman whose accomplishments were her own, she recalled herself in association with the person she most loved.

For a long time Virginia said about her sister Josephine and her brother-in-law Hugo Black that their lives were a marriage of justice and mercy. Virginia should know. For she is one of the region's models of both cherished qualities. Today we're privileged to have a Southerner whose contributions to a democratic South have been a mighty force in shaping the opportunties that exist in the region. But just as important, Virginia Durr has given us the loveliest example of how to conduct a life with a commitment of love for those around us.

Virginia Durr:

I have to explain that a few of the remarks just made about me, which were absolutely beautiful, were not true. The only reason I went to a prohibition meeting when I was age six is that my uncle, Malcolm Patterson, who was the governor of Tennessee, was running on a prohibition ticket. I went to hear him speak and ask people for votes, which he didn't get.

I got interested in the labor movement in Birmingham because my brother in-law, Hugo Black, was the lawyer for the unions. He used to have terrific fights with Forney Johnson who represented the big corporations. Because they didn't have any workman's compensation, Hugo would win big awards from juries. So I'd go to the courts sometimes to hear him argue.

I was delighted to hear that my father was a distinguished Presbyterian preacher with the South Highland Church in Birmingham. But my father actually was thrown out of the church. There's a reason if you want to hear it.

My grandfather, who lived in Union Springs, Alabama, was quite well off. He thought the Civil War was the stupidest thing in the wide world and the "fire-eaters" as he called them, William L. Yancey and all, he couldn't stand. So he sent his cotton to Liverpool and told the merchants there to save his money until after the War. Nearly everybody else in Alabama had nothing but Confederate money--which wasn't worth starting a fire with--but he had gold.

I was brought up to be very much ashamed of him because he wasn't a Confederate. My other grandfather had fought with General Nathan Bedford Forrest and was in the last battle at Selma; he was the hero of the family--this great dashing Confederate Colonel. But my grandfather in


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Indian Springs was not mentioned very much except that he was rich--"thank God."

My father had the opportunity of a very good education. He went to Southwestern, then to Hampden-Sydney, then Princeton, and on to Edinburgh in Scotland. He travelled to Berlin and Heidelberg. He went to the Holy Land. When he came back from his long tour he had some slight doubts in his mind as to whether every word in the Bible was literally true and dictated by God. He wrestled with it for a long time but he never said much about it.

In fact, I used to go to church, Sunday School, evening service on Sundays, prayer meeting on Thursday night. We'd have morning prayers every morning and I'd sit there praying for food.

In those days, preachers sent you to hell at every meeting, and hell wasn't just somewhere down yonder, it was right under the floor. So I grew up in absolute terror of hell.

My father preached hell fire and damnation but he did have his doubts. One day the session of the Presbysterian Church came to him and said they'd suspected he wasn't really very orthodox, in fact they thought he was heretical. They told him he had to swear that he absolutely believed that the whale swallowed Jonah and then spat him up alive three days later just as happy and healthy as he ever was. They said they'd give him a week to decide.

My poor father came home and walked up and down for a week. We took him coffee. My mother cried. I was only seven or eight, and I cried. My brother and my sister cried.

He was in a terrible fix for a man in his forties. He had a wife and three children, and while his mother had that plantation down in Union Springs, you know it wasn't as good as it used to be in the old slavery days.

At the end of the week he came back and said he didn't believe it. They threw him out of the whole Southern Presbyterian Church and declared him to be a heretic. And I swear to God that it was easier to be raised in Birmingham as a communist than as a heretic.

My father had to go into business, and of course he wasn't trained to go into business. And, I hate to tell this, but my father had been raised in the days just after slavery and he really thought every black person had been born to wait on him. So to be poor and struggling too, and he went into an insurance business where he sold insurance to black people.

Steve Suitts said in his introduction how aristocratic I was, well, I can assure you the poorer we got the more aristocratic we became.

But you see my trouble has been--and the reason that I have caused so many rifts--is because I cannot differentiate between politics and people. If I get into a movement, then I like the people or I don't like them. So when I got into the civil rights movement, I liked the people in the movement. I really adored Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune. I felt like they were fighting for me. I was fighting, but they were fighting for me.

Because to be a sweet Southern girl in the South during the days that I grew up you were just like you were a prisoner. You couldn't do anything. You couldn't even kiss the boys without feeling guilty. The great ambition of a Southern girl's life was to marry well.

I got into voting rights and civil rights almost by chance. I got to Washington during the New Deal. My husband was working in the Reconstruction Finanace Corporation. I was free to go into town and take part in the women's division of the Democratic National Committee. I was urged to do that by my brother-in-law, Hugo Black. Hugo really believed that women's place was in the home; he certainly believed that his wife's place was in the home. But he encouraged me--I never knew why, but he did.

So I went in and got thrown immediately into the fight to get rid of the poll tax. I won't go all into that, but we did get rid of it. Now everybody can vote. And, in Alabama, guess who they vote for? Year after year after year? George Wallace. They voted for him over and over and over and they'll probably vote for him this time if he's breathing.


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Then came the question of the segregation and one heroine of that era in the South was Rosa Parks. My husband went down and got her out of jail.

When you talk about heroines, you take a woman who makes twenty-three dollars a week in Montgomery, who has a sick husband, sick mother--she has to support these two people herself. Living in a public housing project. And she's a very well-educated woman.

As you know, there were a number of Yankee women who came South after the Civil War and started missionary schools for black women. The school that Rosa Parks attended there in Montgomery was called Mrs. White's School. These Yankee school teachers taught these black women reading, writing and arithmetic--but also to be citizens.

Rosa Parks claimed the right of being a citizen of the United States. She sat there on that bus and was arrested and taken to jail. But it was a beginning of the end of segregation.

What we have to tackle now is poverty--no jobs, no money, nothing for people to do. And infant mortality. Let me give you an example.

Is anybody here a Baptist? Well don't get your feelings hurt when I talk about the Baptists and what happened in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Baptist Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama is the biggest hospital in the city. It has a fine neo-natal care center and doctors who make lot of money. It has a beautiful statue out front: Jesus holding out his arms, saying, "Suffer all little children to come unto me." So poor, pregnant women--many of them teenagers--began to bring the little children unto them. They brought them from hither and yon, from all over South Alabama.

What did the hospital do? They closed the beds. Those big white bellied Baptists closed those beds and said, "If they can't pay, they've just got to die." And they didn't even take the statue of Jesus down.

Well, my son-in-law got real mad. He's a very nice guy, although he is a Yankee, he's not as much a Yankee as he used to be. He led several marches and helped get back some of the beds, not all of them by any means. NQW this is a rich hospital with a rich bunch of trustees and what they're doing is killing these children.

Now people tell me, "You can't go back to the New Deal. The New Deal is over. It's a new time."

Well it may be a new time, but hell, the New Deal took people who were without jobs--black and white--and put them to work. They had WPA and CCC and NYA and PWA.

And I think the government ought to give people jobs now. And if it takes public ownership of the means of production--now that's a serious phrase, that'll get you in jail every time if you say it at the wrong place. But I believe that to let people be idle and let the country go to hell while we put all our money into Star Wars is insane.

I believe all the nice things I've heard this morning about what to do about food stamps, or about public housing, or


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about learning a new skill. But what the hell use is it to learn a new skill when you can't get a job?

We've got to do something. Fiddling around isn't going to do any good. I don't think we can just make it a little better here and a little better there. We've got to do something more drastic.

Now you all in Georgia have the lousiest bunch of congressmen--except for Wyche Fowler--that I have ever known. We have an even worse bunch of congressmen in Alabama. We have a crazy man, a senator named Denton. I mean he's not just crazy in a polite sense of the word, he's crazy in the medical sense of the word.

And, of course, you cannot run for office in Montgomery, Alabama, or anywhere unless you get on a television. And the people who get on the television the most seem to get elected the most. In Montgomery we've got Bill Dickinson, probably the worst congressman in the United States. He's on the television every fifteen minutes because he's paid for by the war contractors. He is the head of an armed services committee.

So, are we going to be run by this bunch of bastards or not? I mean this is what we get down to. They're corrupt. They're stupid. They're absolutely lacking in any compassion. And Reagan is the worst.

Are we going to sit here and go to hell with the atomic bomb and become specks of dust or are we going to get busy and get mad and do something?

I mean Meese, Reagan--they're just such terrible people, they're not even real. They're just reflections of tv or movies. We've got to get busy because the people who are now running the country seem determined to destroy us. We've got to get together and stand up for ourselves or we're all going to be dead.

During the forty-first anniversary meeting of the Southern Regional Council, held in Atlanta in early November, civil rights advocate Virginia Durr spoke at a luncheon held in honor of the publication of her autobiographical recollections. (Virginia Durr's book, Outside the Magic Circle, edited by Hollinger Rarnard of Birmingham, is available from the University of Alabama Press.) Below, Southern Changes presents excerpts from Virginia's luncheon talk, as well as the introductory comments of SRC executive director Steve Suitts. Steve Suitts.