The Clifford Judkins and Virginia Foster Durr Lectures at Auburn University Mongomery
By William Honey
In 1992 Allen Hess, Chair of the Psychology Department, approached William Honey, Associate Professor in the School of Business, and suggested that AUM needed a lecture series featuring nationally known speakers in the spring to match the Ingram lecture series in the fall.
Honey replied that he knew just the person to sponsor such a lecture; that his friend, Virginia Durr, was famous in her own right and had friends who were national figures, and it would be fit to honor her and her late husband, Clifford Durr. Honey said he would ask her if she would be willing to lend her name to such a lecture series and help obtaining speakers.
Hess said he would talk to the person who headed the University Lectures Committee about funding for such a lecture, and the lecture series received consistent support from that source.
Virginia and Clifford Durr, first made their mark when Clifford was a vital part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Their home in Washington became a meeting place for many of the movers and shakers of Washington political society, including a couple who were to become fast friends, the newly elected Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.
President Roosevelt appointed Clifford to the Federal Communications Commission, where he insisted upon reserving radio and television spectrums for what became public radio and public television. He became the target of J. Edgar Hoover’s anger when he refused to fire an employee who was reported to have read a book about communism, and he refused reappointment because he would not sign a loyalty oath.
Virginia and Clifford returned to Montgomery, where he was born and raised, and Clifford opened a law office. Virginia became friends with Rosa Parks, as the two sewed together for the Durr’s daughters. Virginia arranged for Ms. Parks to receive a scholarship to attend the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Ms. Parks learned about the possibilities of local people organizing and working together for social change under the guidance of activist Myles Horton.
When Rosa Parks was arrested E. D. Nixon, Head of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP, came to Clifford for help in bailing Ms. Parks out of jail, knowing that as a black man he would be refused in his attempt to do the same.
Clifford and Virginia retrieved Ms. Parks from the jail and met with Mr. Nixon and Mr. and Ms. Parks in her house and formulated a plan to challenge the “Back of the Bus” policy of the Montgomery Bus Company.
Clifford wrote the legal brief that a young black lawyer, Fred Gray, presented to the Federal Court, and history was made, as the Court ruled two to one that discrimination in public transportation, like discrimination in education, was unconstitutional. This was a pivotal point in the civil rights movement.
Honey and Virginia met more or less regularly on her front porch to talk and to tape what Virginia hoped would be a rebuttal to the Robert A. Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson that she thought was unfair.
When Honey asked Virginia if AUM could begin an annual lecture series in her name, she was adamant that the lectures be named after Clifford, not her. “No one would give money to a lecture named after me. I am too controversial. “ It was not until after her death that the lecture series was renamed “The Clifford Judkins and Virginia Foster Durr Lectures.”
Virginia seemed to welcome, even savored, controversy. It was she who defied the Un-American Activities Committee of the Senate by sitting on the counsel table and powdering her nose. Although it was Clifford who threatened to assault the government witness who accused Virginia of conspiring with Eleanor Roosevelt to aid the communist cause, he was normally the calm and quiet one. But both shared dedication to the cause of justice and a willingness to act, regardless of the personal consequences.
Hess and Honey met with the AUM Chancellor, who wholeheartedly accepted the idea and arranged a luncheon at the university where all the parties could meet. The Chancellor appointed Allen Hess, William Honey and Nancy Woodman as a steering committee for the first Durr Lecture. Nancy was Director of Planned Giving and was to take care of the financial contributions and mail invitations from her office.
Honey and Hess hoped that famous friends of Virginia’s would come to Montgomery to speak without compensation. The University Lecture Fund contributed One Thousand Dollars each year, which covered all of the mailing costs, so that contributions could go directly into an endowment to continue the lecture series when this store of speakers gave out.
Virginia wanted to have her friend Lady Bird Johnson as the first speaker. Virginia called her, and Lady Bird said she would attend to honor Clifford, but she wanted the speaker to be Tom Johnson, President of CNN. We agreed, especially since he would be sending CNN’s private jet to Texas to fly Lady Bird to the lecture.
Honey wrote the text for a brochure for the lecture with photos of Lady Bird Johnson and Tom Johnson on the cover. When Virginia saw it, she objected, saying we had to invite Fred Gray, who had been the lead lawyer in the case which ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Fred Gray agreed to be the second speaker at the first Durr lecture, though it was too late to add his photo to the brochure. Gray was gracious about this and said he would never refuse Mrs. Durr’s request. Gray later went on to garner more glory as the winning lawyer in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment cases.
The first lecture in April 1992 was a resounding success and very well attended. Lady Bird Johnson stood and spoke briefly on her affection for Virginia and Clifford. Tom Johnson delivered an excellent talk on the state of the television industry. Fred Gray spoke at length on Clifford’s contributions to civil rights in America and his experiences as one of the few black lawyers in Montgomery.
Hess arranged with Balch and Bingham, Clifford’s law firm when he began practicing law, to donate the cost of a reception in the AUM tower before the Sunday night lecture. This firm continued to meet this cost without publicity for many years. Thereafter, Hess was tasked with preparing the lecture hall, videotaping the lectures, and coordinating the reception before the lecture. Honey met with the speakers as they arrived in Montgomery and arranged for their hotel stay and a tour of the city if they had time, and delivered the speaker back to the airport Monday morning.
In the early years of the lecture series all of Virginia’s friends gathered at her house on the Saturday eve before the lecture for potluck and to meet the lecturers. Later, Honey continued the tradition by inviting everyone to a reception at his home on the Saturday night before the lecture. Julian and Leslie McPhillips are the current hosts for such gatherings.
Virginia’s book of names and addresses became the mailing list for the lectures and the source of many of its lecturers. Later Honey exchanged free advertising in The Montgomery Living Magazine that he published with the Capri Theatre for the use of their much larger mailing list, which included many of the contributors to the new endowment for the lectures. In later years the Capri supplied this list gratis.
The first lecture was such a success, Virginia, Hess and Honey decided to invite two speakers to each lecture. In 1993 Hugo Black, Jr., nephew of Virginia, was the first speaker. He reminisced on Clifford’s life and career and his father’s relationship with the Durrs. Sheldon Hackney gave what Honey still considers the most original and insightful lecture in which he connected the 14th Amendment to the American Dream of opportunity in a free society.
Staring with the second year of the series, Honey asked the speakers for the original of their written speech or notes. These were placed in the AUM Archives.
The lecture in 1994 drew the largest crowd of any before or since as Art Buchwald came to AUM to speak in a packed gymnasium. He was humorous; he was provocative; he wowed the crowd with suggestions such as smoking leads to earlier deaths, thus relieving the social security fund of some of its burden.
Virginia wanted John Doar and Burke Marshall, the leading lawyers in the Civil Rights Division of the Kennedy Justice Department, who spent much time in Montgomery during the early 1960’s, to speak. Doar and Marshall met regularly with Clifford who advised them on local procedure and the leanings of adversaries and jurors. The plan was to have a panel discussion composed of these two men and Ray Jenkins, Editor of the Montgomery Advertiser during the days of the Bus Boycott.
Unfortunately, John Doar was unable to come as he was involved in a trial, but Burke Marshall and Ray Jenkins’ recollections of conditions then and now was fascinating and led to much discussion later. Honey invited The Rev. George Washington Carver Richardson, Jr., pastor of one of the largest black churches in Montgomery, to join the panel. Richardson spoke movingly of his feelings as a youngster when two white teenagers threw him off a bridge into the stream below.
In 1995 Honey organized an essay competition for AUM students. Befitting the Durrs, the students were asked to describe a moment in their life when they had to make a significant ethical decision that may have adversely affected them. With the able assistance of Dr. Alan Gribben, Head of the English Department, the competition attracted dozens of entries. The winners were announced at the Durr Lecture and prizes were awarded of $300, $200 and $100 contributed by Julian and Leslie McPhillips. This continued until shortly after Honey departed Montgomery for retirement in California.
1996 was an interesting year for the lecture series. Johnnie Rebecca Carr was invited to be the first speaker. Ms. Carr’s son was the first black student to integrate the Montgomery Public Schools, but only after a bitter court battle. Mr. and Ms. Carr’s courage and patient advocacy of nonviolence during their challenge to the white only policy of the school system was a model for all.
The second speaker was John Kenneth Galbraith. Professor Galbraith was gracious enough to agree to stay after the Sunday lecture and meet with students and faculty in the School of Business, and also attend a luncheon for business leaders in Montgomery. The School of Business donated $1,000 to the Durr lectures. Professor Galbraith’s son, James, a published economist in his own right, was the lecturer in 2010.
When Virginia broke her hip in a fall, her health began to suffer, and she moved to Pennsylvania to be near her daughter, Ann Durr Lyon. At this point Ann became very involved in the lectures, often aided by her sister Lucy and Sheldon Hackney who like Virginia had many connections with prominent figures who could be potential speakers.
Charles Morgan, Jr. and Studs Terkel spoke at the 1997 lecture. Morgan was a close personal friend of the Durrs and litigator of numerous landmark civil rights cases. He spoke about civil rights activities in the years before and after the bus boycott. This was a recurring theme in the early lectures.
Studs Terkel of radio and book fame had been enlisted by Virginia during the 1930s in the fight to end the poll tax; he and the Durrs became lifelong friends. Terkel gave Honey a picture to use for the lecture brochure, which Honey usually wrote. The picture was of Terkel standing at a bar saluting the camera with a martini. The picture nicely anticipated the flavor of his talk – and his many anecdotes about the Durrs and their famous friends.
The next day Honey picked up Studs Terkel at his hotel and drove him to the Montgomery Airport. As they waited for his flight, Terkel was called to the counter to produce his driver’s license as identification. Terkel explained patiently that he did not have a driver’s license because he did not drive. Although he had other photo ID, the Delta clerk insisted on a driver’s license. The clerk refused the ID and insisted Terkel could not fly without a driver’s license photo.
Honey stepped to the counter and placed the Montgomery Advertiser before the clerk and pointed to a six-inch photo of Studs Terkel in a half page article on his appearance in Montgomery. “Here is identification for this famous man. Delta flew him to Montgomery to be our guest and it damn well better fly him home or there will be hell to pay.” The clerk turned and walked away. Shortly thereafter, as Terkel moved forward in the line of passengers showing their boarding passes, the clerk looked away and as Virginia often said, “could swear in a court of law” that he never saw Studs Terkel enter that airplane.
Virginia had long wanted the historian John Hope Franklin to be a lecturer. In1998 we hoped he finally could come, however, his ill health had curtailed most of his engagements.
The committee turned to Wynton Blount and asked him to be the speaker. He agreed, though he did not share the committee’s commitment to liberal causes, but he had done so many good things for the Montgomery community, the famous Shakespeare Theatre being just one of his contributions, it was felt right to honor him. As the day of the lecture neared Mr. Blount’s health took a turn for the worse. Two weeks before the lecture his representative said neither he nor his wife were able to attend and speak.
In a panic without a speaker, Honey turned Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt. Flynt understood the situation immediately and prepared an excellent speech on the history of civil rights in Alabama.
The second speaker in 1998 was Patricia Sullivan, a historian at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and later the University of South Carolina, and good friend of Virginia. Sullivan later edited Virginia’s letters and became a de facto member of the committee. She was instrumental in securing several speakers.
Geoffrey Cowan and Zeecozy Williams were the speakers in 1999. Ms. Williams had been Virginia’s friend, cook, and attendant for many years. Ms. Williams was also instrumental in soliciting the federal government to send registrars to Selma to enforce the 1965 voting rights act.
In 2000 the committee was fortunate to secure Congressman John Lewis as the lecturer. Lewis had been a representative of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Montgomery during the bus boycott and often slept the night on the floor of the Durr’s apartment.
With the consent of the present owners of the house and the financial support of Julian and Leslie McPhillips, a plaque was placed in the front yard of the house commemorating the time that the Durrs lived there and it was a meeting place for all kinds of visitors to witness the boycott.
Honey retired from teaching at AUM about this time, but Honey remained active in organizing the lectures. Ann Durr Lyon, Virginia’s daughter, became the leader of a loose committee of Honey, Lyon and Patricia Sullivan.
The last lecturer that Honey recruited with the help of Patricia Sullivan was The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the Birmingham civil rights movement. Diane McWhorter, author of CARRY ME HOME, the Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Birmingham movement, was instrumental in getting Shuttlesworth to travel from Detroit for the lecture.
Diane McWhorter spoke first about Shuttlesworth, the leading figure in her book. Shuttlesworth, the second lecturer, was greeted with wild acclaim. His presence attracted the most fully integrated audience in the history of the lectures. This was partly due to the efforts of Johnnie Carr and Honey in distributing fliers in every black church in Montgomery.
Honey had met The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at the Birmingham Airport and after the lecture Honey drove Shuttlesworth to Birmingham, where he gave Honey a personal guided tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.
Honey’s and Hess’s active involvement ended after the 2004 lecture, the year Dr. Patricia Sullivan spoke on the book of Virginia’s letters that she had edited, and Morris Dees spoke on racism in America. Dees also hosted a splendid reception on Saturday night for friends and contributors.
The Durr Lectures have continued to attract nationally known speakers under the active involvement of the children and grandchildren of Ann Durr Lyon and Lucy Durr Hackney, and the Office of the Provost.
March 21, 2016