the May 2006 issue of Jewish Currents
|Rosa Parks being booked December 1955||Virginia Durr, ca 1948|
In more than twenty-five years of speaking about the civil rights movement in all its various shapes and contexts, I have learned that many, if not most, Americans think it all boils down to one sentence: “Dr. King had a dream and Mrs. Parks sat down.” Whether this is “dumbing down,” a conspiracy on the part of the powers-that-be to keep everyone ignorant of our great history, or merely a shorthand reference in busy lives, take your pick. There’s no question, however, that a lot of our progressive communal history has gone down the drain. Even among the deluge of tributes that appeared in print and on television following the death of Rosa Parks last October 24th— probably many more than she received when alive —the legend persisted that she had appeared from nowhere as an ordinary, shy woman who simply couldn’t take the abuses of racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama any more.
One of the few who know better is Juan Williams, who wrote in the New York Times (October 31st, 2005) that this “one-dimensional telling of one day in the life of Rosa Parks takes her away from the real story — and to my mind the really inspiring story — of extraordinary black women like Judge [Constance Baker] Motley and Ms. [C. DeLores] Tucker, who rose from working-class backgrounds to become dedicated to creating social change.” Williams went on to note that Mrs. Parks had refused to enter the backdoor of city buses as early as 1943, that she had been a leader of the local NAACP branch in the late 1940’s — and that before she sat down she had been introduced to the progressive, interracial Highlander Folk School in Tennessee by Virginia Durr, whom Williams describes as an “ally” and “the wife of a powerful white lawyer.”
But even Juan Williams may not
know the whole complicated, nuanced story.
Virginia and her husband, Clifford J. Durr, a patrician white Southern attorney, were certainly on their way up during the late 1930s and’40s. They seemed to have met or known every powerful person in the New Deal administration, especially after Clifford became a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Virginia’s sister Josephine (called “Sister” throughout her life) married the former KKK member and great liberal Supreme Court justice, Hugo L. Black. In later life, Virginia loved nothing more than to tell dramatic anecdotes, dropping into the narrative that “Lyndon said this” and “when I called Ladybird” and “Eleanor” and “Sister and Hugo” and so on.
Once settled in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with four children and two full-time servants, Virginia operated from privilege and could have kept herself busy going to teas and cocktail parties. As the wife of a member of the FCC, she had all doors of government and society open to her. Instead, she started organizing with other women against the poll tax, which had effectively disenfranchised poor Black people. From there she ot involved with protests against lynching.
In addition to knowing really famous people, she also became friends with several Southern rebels like herself, including Aubrey Williams, the director of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency, and Myles Horton, the director of the Highlander Folk School. They all met at the 1938 founding conference of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. This meeting stirred up some notoriety when Eleanor Roosevelt refused to obey Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull”Connor’s dictum that whites and Blacks sit separately in two sections of the auditorium; Mrs. Roosevelt put her chair in the middle aisle, right on the racial dividing line, and sat there throughout the meeting.
During the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential
campaign, Virginia ran for senator on the Progressive Party ticket in Virginia.
These heady days of proximity to fame and power all came crashing down in the
lunatic days of what we now call McCarthyism, which began several years before
anyone had heard of that late and unlamented senator. Virginia said in her
autobiography/oral history, Outside the Magic Circle (edited by Hollinger F.
Barnard, University of Alabama Press, 1985),
After two years in a struggling private law
practice in Washington, the Durrs went to Denver, where Clifford had been
offered the job of general counsel to the Farmers’ Union in Denver. This job
lasted little more than a year before Clifford was fired after Virginia made the
mistake of signing a petition against the Korean War. He longed to return to
Alabama and Virginia agreed, though she was more than a little apprehensive
about how they would survive there, both socially and economically. The family
moved to Montgomery in 1951and Cliff opened a law office in 1952, with Virginia
as his secretary.
Red-hunting federal and state committees were competing with each other about who could uncover the most “Communists” and get the most publicity. The federal committees in Washington often held hearings in distant destinations like New Orleans, thereby proving their mettle and justifying their existence to an increasingly fearful populace.
Virginia had already formed her own opinion of Senator Eastland: “a low-down, common as pig tracks, redneck, hillbilly something,” she told me. (See my article, “Red Road-show: Eastland in New Orleans, 1954,” in the Winter 1992 issue of Louisiana History.) “I must say,” she confessed, “Iwas still a Southern snob. I thought I had gotten over it, but when it came to Eastland, all those old familiar phrases came to mind.”
Also subpoenaed was Myles Horton, director of the Highlander Folk School (which was cited by Juan Williams in his New York Times piece as a force in the political education of Rosa Parks). The ostensible purpose of the hearings was, according to Eastland, to expose “Communist influence” in the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), an offshoot of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which had been endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt in1938. By 1947, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare had already been investigated and labeled as “one of the most unscrupulous and most successful Communist-front organizations in the country.”
Virginia did everything she could, behind the scenes, to get the hearings cancelled or to limit their effect. “I was calling everybody in the world, newspaper people, everyone,” she told me. “I was really ringing the alarm.” She called “Ladybird” and “Lyndon,” and though he said he could do little about the hearings, when they began on March 8th, 1954,Eastland was the only senator to show up. Virginia was intensely satisfied, because she had feared a bipartisan show that could make Committee recommendations (including contempt proceedings) more difficult to reverse in Congress. She was confident, as she told me, that “we could take Eastland on alone.”
Rumors had circulated in Washington for months that the Supreme Court was about to make a historic decision concerning school desegregation. Another frothing-at-the-mouth racist, Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi, chose the day before Eastland’s hearings opened to issue a rant about the dire events that would occur if segregation were overruled. For some reason, the Black members of SCEF’s Board were not called to testify. Myles Horton told me he thought this was an effort to drive a wedge between Blacks and whites in SCEF; Virginia thought it an attempt to get at her, assister-in-law of Justice Hugo Black, and therefore to discredit the upcoming Supreme Court decision.
The white press either ignored or supported the hearings, but the Black press universally condemned them. Louisiana Weekly published an open letter from thirty-two Black educators from fifteen states that called the investigation “an attack upon the Negro community of this nation” and described SCEF as “spearhead[ing] the fight against segregation in the South.”
The hearings progressed as such hearings usually did, with professional informers testifying to the “Communist” affiliations of the witnesses, who then had either to plead the Fifth Amendment (protection against self-incrimination) and be excoriated in the press, or plead the First Amendment (freedom of speech) and risk going to jail for contempt of Congress. When it was Virginia’s turn to testify, she gave her name and said truthfully that she was “not under Communist discipline.” (She explained this behavior in later years in terms of her vulnerability as Justice Black’s sister-in-law; she did not want to give Eastland’s cohorts any more ammunition against the anticipated Supreme Court decision). To every other question, she said, “I am not answering. I stand mute.” Since Virginia was known by one and all as a non-stop talker, several people in the courtroom erupted into laughter.
The professional informer Paul Crouch, however, stated that Virginia had “plotted with the Communist leaders to exploit her relationship assister-in-law of a Justice of the Supreme Court in the interests of world communist conspiracy and interest of overthrowing our government.”
When Miles Horton’s turn came to testify, he explained that Highlander’s mission was to educate “rural and industrial leaders for democratic living and activity.” This was a rather dry way of describing Highlander, which was an interracial safe haven in the South that taught citizenship rights, progressive social and political history, and the music of the movement. Horton attempted to read a statement but was cut off by Eastland, who then ordered two deputy U.S. marshals to drag him from his chair and hustle him out of the room. Virginia rushed out to see what was happening to him; in the meantime, Crouch was on the stand again, this time saying that Virginia had “full knowledge of the conspiratorial nature” of the activities of some of the members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare who were obtaining “intelligence information from the White House for the benefit of the Communist Party and the Soviet Government.”
This was too much for Clifford,
normally a soft-spoken and most genteel Southern gentleman. He vaulted over the
railing, flung himself on Crouch and attempted to choke him, shouting, “You son
of a bitch, I’ll kill you for lying about my wife!” The courtroom burst into
bedlam and Clifford, who had a heart condition and chronic back problems, was
taken to a bench in the hallway where he lay down, trembling, while Virginia
called a doctor. Later they found that Clifford had suffered a mild heart
In her autobiography, Virginia
notes that Myles Horton wrote to her in the summer of 1955 requesting the name
of a Black person who might want to fill a scholarship at Highlander Folk
School. She immediately thought of Rosa Parks and went to her house to ask her
if she would like to go.
Virginia lived in a gracious albeit somewhat shabby home in an older section of white Montgomery that she claimed was peopled by strange eccentrics, like the demented aged gentleman who prowled the neighborhood day and night wearing his Confederate Army uniform. She inveighed against many of her neighbors who were all, she insisted, “alcoholics and drug addicks.” (That’s no mistake in spelling.) Later on, when we discussed McCarthyism, she would comment on the irony of being charged with trying to overthrow the government by saying, “Whah, Dottie, all of our grandfathers had really tried to overthrow the government by force and violence, and we really had some faint idea of what it was!”
Virginia, who died at 95 in 1999, outlived
Clifford by 20 years. She never stopped talking about Mrs. Parks or telling
injudicious stories with great gusto to all who would listen about all the
thousands of people she had known in and out of government.
This, as Williams suggests, is what happens when history is not
a “one-dimensional retelling.” Think of how many more dimensions are
At the Highlander Folk School in 1957