That fateful day when Rosa Parks was arrested was not where it all began. Ms. Parks long had stirrings that the system was unfair, as indeed it was. Her friendship with Virginia Durr prompted Virginia to obtain for her friend a scholarship to the Highland Folk School in Tennessee. There Rosa Parks experienced true equality and confirmation of her own self-worth.
When the moment came, she was prepared to resist quietly yet another insult to her as a person on this earth. The night of her arrest, Clifford and Virginia went with E. D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery NAACP, to bail Ms. Parks out of the Montgomery jail. Mr. Nixon was afraid that the police would refuse him as a colored person. The next day the news of Ms. Parks’ refusal and arrest spread, and shortly the Bus Boycott began under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the legal front, Fred Gray, a newly admitted attorney, was called to a conference with Ms. Parks and Clifford Durr. It was decided to file an action in the United States District Court challenging racial segregation on city buses, using the principles of constitutional law enunciated in Brown v. Board of Education that separate is not equal under the 14th Amendment in public education, or, as claimed in this new lawsuit, in public transportation. Clifford Durr drafted a petition to the Court, which Fred Gray filed. Virginia's brother-in-law, Hugo Black, was a sitting member of the United States Supreme Court. They did not want him to recuse himself because Clifford's name was on the petition, so Fred Gray filed and argued the case. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that segregation in public accommodations was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court approved the 11th Circuit decision without an opinion. The Bus Boycott was won. In all areas of public accommodations, black and white were legally equal. Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Virginia used to tell this story many times. She and Clifford became friends of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson when Lyndon was a freshman Congressman. When Lyndon became president, Virginia pestered him for years to enact a voting rights bill. Virginia and Eleanor Roosevelt long had fought for an end to the poll tax, tests, and other impediments to voting. “When I have the votes, Virginia,” Johnson always replied. He got the votes in 1965.
Clifford Judkins Durr (1899-1975)
Clifford Durr was born and raised in Montgomery and Virginia Foster Durr in Birmingham. Clifford attended local schools and the University of Alabama and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he received a law degree. Virginia attended Birmingham Schools and Wellesley College. They began married life in 1926 with the expectations that Virginia would be a housewife and social figure, and Clifford would be a successful corporate lawyer.
Clifford began a career in law in Birmingham with the predecessor of the Balch and Bingham law firm. Virginia busied herself with the usual "genteel lady" activities of the day, however she was appalled at the condition of many workers and their families, which she saw while doing church social work and soon became an activist for the cause of the underprivileged.
Clifford and Virginia moved to Virginia in 1933 when he was appointed legal counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and later Chief Legal Counsel to the Defense Plant Corporation. Their home on Seminary Hill became a center of lively political discussion with distinguished guests. Four daughters, Ann, Lucy, Lulah and Tilla and a son who died at an early age were born to Clifford and Virginia. In 1941 Clifford was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission, where he headed the effort to save channels for public radio and television, and Virginia became active in the fight to eradicate the poll tax. She was a founding member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Clifford challenged and embarrassed J. Edgar Hoover when he refused to fire an FCC employee with suspected communist connections (some of the alleged connections were war committees headed by Supreme Court Justices and the Vice President), and he was not reappointed to the FCC.
They returned to Montgomery in 1955, where Clifford began a law practice with Virginia as his secretary. E.D. Nixon called on Clifford and Virginia the night Rosa Parks was arrested because he feared the police would not let a black man bail her out. Virginia and Rosa were friends, and she and Clifford went with Nixon to post bond for Ms. Parks. Thus began their trials as Clifford agreed to help file suit to declare the segregated bus system unconstitutional. Even though the community would soon condemn, and in some cases, threaten them, Clifford and Virginia continued to help the bus boycott. Their home became a haven for visiting activists and newspaper reporters. Through continued hard times Clifford never relinquished his belief in the democratic system under the constitution, and Virginia never gave a moment's peace to those who would continue a system of segregation. Her shining moment finally came when President Lyndon Johnson signed the voting rights bill into law abolishing the poll tax. Clifford and Virginia left a legacy of courage and conviction that is worthy of all men and women to follow.
Virginia Foster Durr (1903 -1999)
Virginia Foster was the daughter of an Alabama Presbyterian minister. She was born on August 6, 1903, in Birmingham, AL. As a child she shocked her elders by rebelling against the treatment of her black friends. However, she accepted segregation and was forced to question her beliefs for the first time at Wellesly College. As a sophomore she was faced with a “rotating tables” policy that she didn’t want to participate in. This policy required students to eat meals at tables with a random group of fellow students, including African Americans. After protesting this policy, Virginia was told she would either have to abide by the policy or leave school. She decided to stay.
She was forced to leave the college her junior year because of financial difficulties. After returning to Birmingham, AL, she met her future husband, attorney Clifford Durr. After their marriage, they moved to Washington, D.C. Durr was gradually converted to more liberal beliefs through her associations with her husband’s New Deal colleagues. While her husband worked for President Roosevelt, Virginia joined the Woman’s National Democratic Club. This contact with political activists ignited her own activist tendencies. She found the poll tax, which was particularly used on African Americans and women, very offensive. She worked very closely with liberal political leaders to gain the necessary support for legislation, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the dismissal of the poll tax. The Durr’s became involved in the anti-Communist hysteria surrounding the congressional hearings supported by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Senator James O. Eastland. Virginia was subpoenaed as a witness on supposed Communist influences in Eleanor Roosevelt’s circle. Because of the stress, Clifford suffered a nervous collapse.
Virginia became a founding member of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare. Because of Virginia and Clifford’s controversial positions on issues of race, many white people in Birmingham didn’t like them. That didn’t stop them. They continually tried to stop institutionalized racism. The Durr’s provided legal advice to blacks and also supported the Freedom Riders and the Voting Rights Act. In December 1955, Virginia and Clifford Durr bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on one of the segregated buses. Shortly after, Virginia helped to organize the Montgomery bus boycott. She also wrote many essays on the civil rights struggle. Her first was on the trial of a Ku Klux Klan member in Alabama. In her later years, Virginia supported nuclear disarmament. Durr had a very active life. Her career work included: Civil rights activist, relief worker during the Great Depression, lobbyist, campaign worker for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, and participant in Eyes on the Prize, a PBS television series on the civil rights movement. After having an influential career and raising four daughters, Virginia Durr died on February 24, 1999, at the age of 95. An obituary in the London Times noted that “to the end of her long life [Durr remained] the soul of indiscretion, inveighing against those she regarded as sinners while canonizing those she considered soul mates.”