“Grace and Guts” Virginia Foster Durr 1903-1999
H. Randall Williams
Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 p. 35
SRC Life Fellow Virginia Durr-born August 6, 1903- died February 24, 1999, in her sleep in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. She was one of the most outspoken white Southern progressives of the twentieth century and, though she never held elective office or any high position, one of its most influential. The wife of Clifford J. Durr and the sister-in-law of Hugo Black, she was the friend and confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, E. D. Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many others.
A Birmingham native, she attended Wellesley College, and after marrying Clifford Durr moved with him in 1933 to Washington to work in the New Deal. There she fought the poll tax and began her association with the Southern Conference on Human Welfare and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the forerunner of the Southern Regional Council.
In the late forties, she worked in the Henry Wallace campaign and challenged McCarthyism. The Durrs moved to Montgomery, her husband’s home, in 1951, and she served as his legal secretary. Their work brought them into contact and friendship with E. D. Nixon, the Pullman porter who led the Montgomery NAACP, and NAACP secretary Rosa Parks, whom Virginia Durr employed part-time as a seamstress and encouraged to attend a civil rights training session at the Highlander Folk School.
Charges of communism still shadowed the Durrs and in 1954 Virginia Durr was called before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, where she was famously photographed on the witness stand powdering her nose rather than answering questions.
When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955, Nixon called the Durrs to help get her out of jail. As the Montgomery Bus Boycott developed, Clifford Durr gave legal advice to NAACP attorney Fred Gray on the cases which dismantled local bus segregation, and Virginia Durr became increasingly identified with the emerging civil rights movement.
Through the 1960s, the Durrs ran a household that overflowed with their own children and also journalists, historians, lawyers, and activists drawn to Montgomery by the bus boycott, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, and the many other local battles of the burgeoning movement.
Meanwhile, their affiliation with the SRC deepened. Clifford Durr was a Council Member, and Virginia Durr was writing, under the by-lines of Eliza Heard or Virginia Foster, for the SRC journal New South. In one of her articles, she covered the trial in Hayneville, Alabama, of the killers of Viola Liuzzo.
In the late sixties, the Durrs moved to a family farm near Wetumpka, Alabama, where they were locally known as “those communists on the Tallassee highway.” The hordes of visitors continued to fill their home for conversation and debate about politics, law, and history.
Clifford Durr died in 1975 but in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Virginia Durr continued to write, speak, and agitate for progressive politics. She published a widely praised memoir, Outside the Magic Circle, in 1985. In honoring her at the 1984 SRC annual meeting, then-executive director Steve Suitts said, “She’s a woman who combines grace and guts.”
In the eighties, she began summering at the Martha’s Vineyard vacation home of her daughter and son-in-law, Lucy and Sheldon Hackney. There she renewed older friendships and charmed a new generation of admirers. Her ninetieth birthday party on the island was attended by a thousand guests, including Hillary and Bill Clinton.
She remained in remarkably good health until the past few years, when she moved from her home into full-time nursing care.
Her funeral in Montgomery was attended by the present Governor of Alabama, a stark reminder of how she had endured and to a large extent prevailed over her political foes.
H. Randall Williams is editor at Black Belt Press in Montgomery and a contributing editor to Southern Changes.