Learning from the Long Civil Rights Movement's First Generation: Virginia Foster Durr
Thuesen, Sarah, Southern Cultures
"You think you are the first generation who's ever done this; you ought to go out and learn some things." Louisville activist Anne Braden, whose own work with southern progressive movements began in the 1940s, offered that advice to Sue Thrasher, a Braden protege and student organizer in the 1960s. That call to learn from an earlier generation inspired Thrasher, along with historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and fellow student activist Leah Wise, to begin recording in the early 1970s the memories of veteran southern progressives. At the time of the project's inception, all three women were working in Atlanta for the newly formed Institute for Southern Studies. In 1973 Hall left for the University of North Carolina, where her commitment to recovering voices from the South's earlier radical traditions became one of the driving impulses behind her founding of the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP). Two years later, that ongoing interest in learning from first-generation Civil Rights activists, combined with a new SOHP initiative on southern women, brought Hall and Thrasher to the Wetumpka, Alabama, home of Virginia Foster Durr. Like her longtime friend Anne Braden, Durr stood as a living embodiment of what Hall would later term the "Long Civil Rights Movement." (1)
Born in Alabama in 1903, Durr grew up in Birmingham hearing stories of her slaveholding ancestors. Though the family's wealth had declined significantly by the early twentieth century, Durr formed an early identification with elite society that never completely faded, even as she later fought against institutions of race and class privilege. "You could not be around Virginia without acknowledging and just observing that she did lay claim to coming from aristocracy," Thrasher recalled.
Durr took pride in her aristocratic roots but also demonstrated an early unwillingness to play the role of the stereotypical southern belle. Her entry into political activism came in the early thirties, when she and her husband, Alabama attorney Clifford Durr, moved to Washington, D. C. There Clifford served in the Roosevelt administration, while Virginia became active with the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, especially its work to abolish the poll tax. In association with other like-minded New Dealers, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Durr became in 1938 one of the founding members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, one of the South's first interracial organizations that actively opposed segregation. Her work for voting rights continued throughout the 1940s, and she served as a lead organizer for the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, all the while raising four daughters. She was an ardent supporter of Henry Wallace's 1948 bid for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket and ran that same year for the United States Senate as the Progressive Party's candidate from Virginia. In 1951 the Durrs returned to Alabama, where Clifford established a law practice in Montgomery. For a time, Virginia scaled back her political activism, partly in an effort to shield her family from reprisal. Yet, in 1954, she came under public scrutiny when Senator James Eastland, from Mississippi, called her to testify in New Orleans before his Internal Security Subcommittee. Eastland failed to draw convincing links between Durr and "subversive" activity; her chief sin, as Durr later put it, was not in being a Communist but rather in refusing to become an anti-Communist. The publicity surrounding the hearing, however, did expose Durr as an opponent of segregation. From that time on, she made little attempt to conceal her racial politics and became an active supporter of the emerging Civil Rights Movement, most famously giving aid to Rosa Parks during the years surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
With Clifford at her side, Virginia sat with Hall and Thrasher for initial interviews in the spring of 1975. …