“…Something Is Bound to Happen”
Reveiwed by Randall Williams
Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 21-22
Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr Letters from the Civil Rights Years, edited by Patricia Sullivan (New York: Routledge, 2003.
There is delight and living history on every page of this welcome collection of the correspondence of Montgomery’s Virginia Durr, who would have turned a hundred this year. Durr was already the subject of a fine oral history memoir (Outside the Magic Circle, 1985, University of Alabama Press), but the letters selected and annotated here by historian Patricia Sullivan show us afresh why Durr was not only colorful but also important. Few Southern white women of the 20th century lived as close to the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement as Virginia Durr or understood so keenly how that movement was a part of an ongoing struggle to refine the peculiarly American experiment in democracy.
Durr’s role was personal, political, and ideological. Born into a privileged white family in Birmingham, she slipped into genteel poverty when her Presbyterian minister father lost his pulpit after being convicted by his denomination of biblical heresy. Still, she made her society debut, married the brilliant young lawyer Clifford Durr, and joined the Junior League.
However, the Great Depression had Birmingham in its grip, and through her work as a Red Cross volunteer in the mill villages Durr became increasingly aware of the hypocrisies of the local corporate and civic leaders-the fathers of her friends in society and church-in their vicious union-busting, the evictions from company houses of laid-off workers, and the exploitation of racial fears.
When Clifford Durr’s law firm laid off junior members and secretaries rather than reduce senior partners’ salaries, Clifford Durr either quit or was fired. Fortunately, Virginia’s sister Josephine was married to Hugo Black, Alabama’s junior senator and future Supreme Court Justice. Through Black’s influence, Clifford Durr got a job with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (later he would serve on the Federal Communications Commission) and the Durrs set up household in rural Alexandria, Virginia. Here they would stay for seventeen years.
Virginia Durr happily immersed herself in New Deal and progressive politics, chiefly around suffrage, against the poll tax, and to end Jim Crow segregation. Here she also began to exhibit what was perhaps her greatest gift, that of collector of kindred souls and networker. She knew everyone, it seems, and Patricia Sullivan has carefully footnoted the letters in this volume to remind us who the players were and of the linkages between the various parties and groups mentioned.
What a cast of characters it is! Durr’s regular correspondents ranged from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to organizer Jim Dombrowski, from brother-in-law Hugo Black to future President Lyndon Johnson, from author Jessica Mitford to literary critic Maxwell Geismar. Durr was far from a society hostess in Washington, or in Montgomery after 1950, but she had an uncanny knack for hosting dinners where interesting and often important people showed up. In both her parties and her letters, she stimulated debate on all the significant social issues of her time, constantly trying to persuade people to make alliances and to act for progressive causes, legislation, and electoral politics.
Her philosophy is summarized in a 1941 letter to the young historian C. Vann Woodward, whose books were becoming handbooks for progressive activists: “I have an invincible belief that if the right people ever get together something is bound to happen.”
Back home in Montgomery, Alabama–where the Durrs had retreated after Clifford resigned from the FCC rather than sign Harry Truman’s anti-communist loyalty oath–she tried to keep a low profile but couldn’t. She and Clifford were ostracized from the white community but made friends in the black community. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the Durrs went with organizer E. D. Nixon to get her out of jail, and then Clifford Durr helped young attorney Fred Gray prepare her defense.
As two of the very few local whites who supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Durrs were thrust into the thick of what became the modern Civil Rights Movement. They remained in it for the duration always outspoken
voices against the demagoguery of Alabama’s elected officials, and always supporting and encouraging and providing a safe haven to the civil rights activists, historians, and journalists drawn to and through Montgomery from 1955 through 1968.
All these events and personages are revealed in Virginia Durr’s correspondence from 1951 to 1968, which is the period editor Sullivan chose as a way of limiting what could have been a thousand-page volume. As it is, there is not a dull paragraph in the book, and Sullivan’s own extensive introduction and bridges between the letters provide a readable and most valuable overview of the civil rights struggle. It is a personal view, to be sure, but when the person is as remarkable and has as fine an intellect and insight as possessed by the late Virginia Foster Durr, one can only regret that more letters could not be included.
Randall Williams is a former managing editor of Southern Changes, and is a long-time associate of the Southern Regional Council. He is the editor-in-chief of NewSouth Books.