Virginia Foster Durr

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Virginia Foster Durr
Virginia Foster Durr.jpg
Born (1903-08-06)August 6, 1903
Died February 24, 1999(1999-02-24) (aged 95)
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Clifford Durr

Virginia Foster Durr (August 6, 1903 – February 24, 1999) was an American and a white civil rights activist and lobbyist. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1903 to Dr. Sterling Foster, an Alabama Presbyterian minister, and Ann Patterson Foster. At 22 she married lawyer Clifford Durr, with whom she had 5 children, one of whom died in infancy.[1] Durr was a close friend of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, and was sister-in-law (through her sister's marriage) to and a good friend of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who sat on many crucial civil rights cases. She was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame in 2006.[2]

Early life and college[edit]

Durr was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where her family had raised her believing that the Ku Klux Klan were protectors of southern womanhood.

Durr attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts [3] from 1920 to 1923. Durr has explicitly acknowledged Wellesley as the catalyst of her moral transformation from a racist to civil rights activist. She came to question segregation after her experience with her college’s dining hall. The dining halls had a rotating tables policy that required students to eat meals with random students regardless of their race.[4] Durr, uncomfortable with this idea, protested this rule, but ended up dealing with it after the head of her house threatened to release her from the university if she didn't embrace the rotating tables policy. This led to a new phrase, "Virginia Durr Moment", which refers to an event that promotes the moral development of an individual.

Durr was forced to withdraw from Wellesley College due to financial reasons in 1923 and returned home to Birmingham, Alabama.


After withdrawing from school in 1923, Virginia Durr returned home to Birmingham, Alabama where she met her future husband Clifford Durr at church.[5] Virginia Durr and Clifford Durr got married in April, 1926, and had five children. Clifford married Virginia Foster Durr in hopes of her being a house wife and great social figure while he became a very successful and influential corporate lawyer. While accepting the role of housewife, Virginia was bothered by the condition many workers and their families were in, which she had noticed while volunteering in social work for churches. Virginia and Clifford Durr gave legal, financial, and moral support to civil rights activists.[6]

Washington, D.C. and activism[edit]

In 1933 Durr moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. after Clifford was appointed legal counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and later Chief Legal Counsel to the Defense Plant Corporation. Eventually it was where they became New Dealers. It was in Washington where Virginia Durr’s activism began. She met important people through her husband's New Deal contacts. While her husband was working for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation,[7] Durr joined the Woman’s National Democratic Club.[3] where she worked hard to eliminate the poll tax, which was a tax designed to deny southern African Americans the right to vote. In 1938, she was one of the founding members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), an interracial group working to reduce segregation and improve living conditions in the South. The group was formed in part as a response to Franklin Roosevelt's proclamation that the South was the leading economic problem in the nation.[8]

By 1941, Durr became the vice president of the SCHW's civil rights subcommittee. Working together with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she lobbied for legislation to abolish the poll tax.[7] She worked jointly with liberal political leaders in order to gain the necessary support needed for legislation, which ultimately resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Durr later recalled her work with the SCHW as one of the happiest events of her life.[8]

Progressive Party candidate[edit]

Quote from an obituary written by Patricia Sullivan:

"Mrs. Durr ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia on the Progressive ticket in 1948. At that time she said, "I believe in equal rights for all citizens and I believe the tax money that is now going for war and armaments and the militarization of our country could be better used to give everyone in the United States a secure standard of living."

Her opponents were Democrat Absalom Willis Robertson, Republican Robert H. Woods, Independent Howard Carwile & Socialist Clarke T. Robbe.

McCarthy era[edit]

During the McCarthy era, a time where there was intense anti-communist suspicion in the United State where one made accusations of disloyalty without proper evidence, Durr was called to New Orleans to appear before Senator James Eastland’s Internal Security Committee, where they investigated suspected Communists. Because the Durrs did not openly condemn communism, anti-Communist activists often targeted them. At the committee, Durr gave her name, assured them that she was not a Communist, and then refused to answer any further questions.[1]

Return to Montgomery[edit]

In 1951 Durr returned with her husband to Montgomery, Alabama, where she became acquainted with local civil rights activists.

Durr supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers by housing many volunteers who came to Montgomery to work on voter registration issues.[9] The couple supported the sit-in movement and Freedom Riders. Virginia and her husband offered sleeping space to students coming from the North to protest. Through the couple's work for civil rights, they became close associates of E. D. Nixon, who was the president of the Montgomery NAACP chapter.

A group of people in her town arranged to have integrated church meetings of black and white women. There was a lot of opposition against the integrated meetings, from the locals as well as from within the church. In her autobiography, Mrs. Durr wrote how the head of the United Church Women in the South (UCWS, an integration group) came to one of the meetings. Opponents to the meeting took the license plate numbers from the cars and published them in an Alabama Ku Klux Klan magazine. The women of the UCWS received harassing phone calls. Some had family members who publicly distanced themselves from their activities, because it was bad for business. As a result, the women became too afraid to continue their meetings.

Virginia Durr employed Rosa Parks part-time as a seamstress and considered her a friend. Durr obtained a scholarship for Parks to attend Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. It was here where Rosa Parks experienced true equality for the first time in her life.[1] In December 1955, Virginia and Clifford, along with E.D. Nixon, bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person.[10]

Later life[edit]

Clifford Durr died on May 12, 1975 at age 76 and Virginia Durr continued to write and speak about political issues. Mrs. Durr remained active in state and local politics until she was in her nineties. In 1985 she published her autobiography, "Outside the Magic Circle." She continued being politically active until a few years before her death. Virginia Foster Durr died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on February 24, 1999, at the age of 95.[7]

Upon hearing of Durr's death, Rosa Parks said Durr's "upbringing of privilege did not prohibit her from wanting equality for all people. She was a lady and a scholar, and I will miss her." [11] President Bill Clinton said after her death: "Her courage, outspokenness, and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped change this nation forever."[12]


  1. ^ a b c Sundman, John. "Virginia Foster Durr and the Salvation of Alabama". 
  2. ^ "Inductees". Alabama Women's Hall of Fame. State of Alabama. Retrieved February 20, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Mur Wolf (June 12, 2000). "Person of the Week: Virginia Foster Durr". Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  4. ^ "Durr biographies". 
  5. ^ Brown, Sarah. "Clifford Durr". 
  6. ^ Chappell, David (1996). Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0801852343. 
  7. ^ a b c Patricia Sullivan. "Virginia Foster Durr Obituary". Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  8. ^ a b Woodham, Rebecca. "Virginia Foster Durr". 
  9. ^ "Virginia Durr (1903-1999)". 
  10. ^ "Virginia Foster Durr Biography" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  11. ^ Robinson, Doug. "Virginia Heard Durr (Foster) ["(1903 - ", "1999)", " "". 
  12. ^ "Virginia Foster Durr". 


  • Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr, edited by Hollinger F. Barnard (1985; New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1987). ISBN 0-671-63855-6
  • Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years, edited by Patricia Sullivan (New York: Routledge, 2003). ISBN 0-415-94516-X

External links[edit]