From the May 2006 issue of Jewish Currents
They Stood Up
Rosa Parks and Virginia Durr, Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement
Dorothy M, Zellner

 

 
Rosa Parks being booked  December 1955   Virginia Durr, ca 1948


Several years ago,
a friend reported that her son, age 3, was asked to portray Dr. Martin Luther King at a commemoration sponsored by the boy’s daycare center in Sunnyside, Queens. My friend, very pleased by this honor, wondered what, if anything, her son had learned through this experience. After the program, she asked him: What did Dr. King do? The child answered: “Dr. King said, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ ”

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.

I never had the honor of meeting Mrs. Parks, but I knew Virginia Durr quite well. She was one of those fabulous characters that the white South throws up now and then. She could easily have become an alcoholic Zelda Fitzgerald or a Blanche DuBois, if the circumstances of her life had shifted just a little bit. Instead, Virginia was fortunate to have been radicalized and not destroyed by what she saw around her in Birmingham, Alabama, as an aristocratic white matron during the worst days of the Depression. “Whah, Dottie,” she would exclaim to me in the thickest of Southern accents, “people were hungry and had nothing, so how could I go to the Junior League meetings when milk was being poured down the sewers?”

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),

By the late ’40s the Cold War began to affect the FCC and Cliff’s work there. J. Edgar Hoover would send over FBI reports on people who wanted radio stations: Mr. So-and-so had been identified by T-19 as having had connections with So-and-so, who was seen by agent T-17 at a Communist meeting. The FCC began refusing people radio licenses on the word of faceless FBI informants. Cliff and Hoover got into a terrible fight then, because Cliff thought that to deny a man a license on the basis of anonymous T-17 information was terrible.

When Clifford realized that, as a member of the FCC or as its possible chairman, he would be forced to administer loyalty oaths to all FCC employees and to rely on allegations from nameless informants, he refused a reappointment when President Truman offered it in 1948. In Virginia’s characteristic style, she said:

Cliff went off to see Truman and told him that he could not accept reappointment to the FCC and that he was against the loyalty oath. Truman told him that he was just trying to get ahead of Parnell Thomas, who was then head of the UnAmerican Activities Committee. Parnell Thomas was holding meetings in Hollywood and everywhere. Of course, he later went to the penitentiary for stealing from his own employees, or making them divvy up with him.

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.

For some time they lived “quietly,” as Virginia said, especially since Virginia had taken the precaution of resigning from every organization to which she belonged to avoid any unpleasantness with Clifford’s family, who were for the most part traditional white Southerners — that is, segregationists. Yet she was no longer the same woman who had grown up in Alabama. The racism surrounding her was too visible to ignore. For example:
Mr. Ed Nixon, who was head of the NAACP in Montgomery [and leader of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that was sparked by Rosa Parks’ arrest] brought Cliff a lot of cases. Mr. Nixon was a very nice man and we liked him a lot . . . I had known Mr. Nixon for two or three years and I’d always called him Mr. Nixon and he called me Mrs. Durr. One day I saw him at the post office. I said, “Why, hello, Ed.”. . . He didn’t say anything. I held out my hand and said, “Hello, Ed,” and he didn’t take my hand. I went back to the office with the mail and in about fifteen minutes, he came up and sat down.

“Now Mrs. Durr, I want to get something straight with you.”

“Well, what in the world?”

“Look, don’t you ever call me Ed again. If I called you Virginia, I’d be lynched. . . . And to shake my hand in public that way, that’s going to get me in trouble. Now when I can call you Virginia, you can call me Ed. And I’ll shake your hand in public when it’s safe. You ought to have better sense than to come up to a black man in the public post office and say ‘Hello, Ed’ and put out your hand.”

“We were caught up in the system of segregation in Montgomery just like everybody else,” Virginia’s oral history continued. “. . . Cliff had such mixed emotions. Alabama was home, and we were near his family. But our ideas — our ideas about race especially — were painfully different from those of Cliff’s family.”

The Durrs probably would have continued eking out an existence (hardly the lifestyle of the “powerful white lawyer” described by Juan Williams) at the fringes of white society, probably tolerated as eccentrics with good family connections — except for Virginia’s suddenly being subpoenaed in 1954 by the infamous racist, Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, to testify before the Senate Internal Subcommittee in New Orleans.

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 attack.

On May 17th, 1954, as anticipated, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and declared school segregation unconstitutional.

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.

She said that she would but didn’t have any money. You can imagine under what straitened circumstances they lived, even doing extra sewing, which she never charged enough for . . . I went over and got the money from Aubrey Williams [former head of the New Deal agency National Youth Administration, who had been subpoenaed by Eastland the year before] . . . bus fare to Highlander and back was no more than twelve or fifteen dollars . . . Rosa Parks is one of the proudest people I’ve ever known in
my life. She hated to admit she didn’t have a suitcase or a bathing suit or money. It was painful for her . .. so all of this had to be accomplished with a great deal of tact, which I am not noted for . . . By that time she’d gotten fond of me, too, and she really wanted to go. . .. So she went to the Highlander Folk School and she had a wonderful time. Now Myles has always taken great pride in the fact that he thought Mrs. Parks’ stay at Highlander encouraged her in the boycott. Having known Mrs. Parks, I think it gave her a great lift. She loved it . . .

When Mrs. Parks came back from Highlander, she still had her job at the Montgomery Fair as seamstress. It was during the Christmas rush and the room where she worked was little and hot. The heavy pressing irons added to the heat. She had bursitis in her shoulder, which pained her very much. One afternoon she stopped to buy a big bag of groceries after work. Her arm was very painful, and she was exhausted from her day spent in that hot little room. She had complained about the bus to me and discussed it many times. She had told me how she’d pay her money and then have to run around to the back door to get in, and the driver would slam the door and ride off leaving her standing on the curb after she’d paid her money. She had resented this for years. She resented having to get up and give her seat to white people. The buses had been a very hot issue in Montgomery. The local NAACP had had many cases they’d tried to take into the courts about it. . .

This particular afternoon, Mrs. Parks later told me, she was exhausted. The bus she took went out to the housing project and was full of blacks, but some white men got on. The bus driver turned around and said, the way they always said, “Niggers, move back.” And she just sat. The driver came up to her. He said, “Did you hear me say to move back?” She said yes. He said, “Areyou going to move back?” She said no. He called the police, and they came and arrested her and took her to jail. . . .

We got home about five o’clock from the office. . . We had just walked in and poured some coffee when the telephone rang. It was Mr. Nixon. He said, “Mr. Durr, will you call the jail and see why Mrs.Parks has been arrested? The police had recognized [Nixon’s] voice as being that of a black man, and they wouldn’t tell him anything . . . Cliff called the jail . . . They told him she’d been booked on the city segregation ordinance .. . Mr. Nixon asked if Cliff would go down with him to make bail. Cliff said, “Mr. Nixon, I don’t have anything to make bail with.”. . . Mr. Nixon said, “That’s all right. I can get bail, if you’ll just go with me.’ He was afraid they wouldn’t let him make bail. I was determined to go, too . . .

I waited for them while they made bail. Everything went very smoothly. They brought Mrs. Parks out from behind the bars. That was a terrible sight to me to see this gentle, lovely sweet woman whom I knew and was so fond of, being brought down by a matron. She wasn’t in handcuffs, but they had to unlock two or three doors that grated loudly. She was very calm. I asked her how they had treated her and she said, “Very nicely.” Just at that moment her husband arrived. He was very excited and upset. . . . Of course, Mr. Nixon wanted her to make a test case of it. Mr. Nixon remembers her as being extremely reluctant to do so, but I remember that it was her husband who was so reluctant. . . . [T]hat night it was decided that Mrs. Parks would challenge the bus ordinance on constitutional grounds, and Fred Gray [one of the few Black lawyers in Alabama at the time] would represent her. It would be an NAACP case and Cliff would do all he couldt o help Fred, but Cliff would not be the lawyer of record.

Mrs. Parks was bought up to trial on the Monday after her arrest. In the meantime, Mr. Nixon had organized a boycott of the buses on the day of her trial. It was supposed to be just a one-day boycott. I can very well remember going to a meeting Mr. Nixon had that Sunday afternoon at a black church. It was an NAACP meeting and Mr. Nixon asked me to come. I remember that he was very emotional. He said to the people, “I’m a Pullman porter and every time I go on my job, I put on an apron or a jacket.” He said, “You know, we’ve been wearing aprons for three hundred years. It’s time we took off our aprons.”

I met Virginia Durr in 1962, when I was as a young worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I visited her in her home many times, as did many other SNCC workers and stray volunteers, to the extent that she began to act as the unofficial den mother for young movement activists. In my opinion. she never really understood the young people of the 1960s — they did not meet her standards of mannerliness — but she admired them nevertheless. Her reactions to their “bizarre” behavior became material for some of her most-often told and best stories.

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.

Rosa Parks, as Juan Williams said, did not only “sit down.” She was even more of an activist than Williams described: a woman brave enough in the mad, red-hunting 1950s to attend Highlander Folk School after it had been defamed as a “Communist” school that encouraged interracial sex, and after its director had been subpoenaed by a Senate investigating committee and been thrown bodily out of the hearing. She was courageous enough to associate with and request assistance from people who had been shredded in the press as Communists and spies. She ignored the red-baiting of the 1950s to become, forever more, a worldwide symbol of resistance to oppression.

This, as Williams suggests, is what happens when history is not a “one-dimensional retelling.” Think of how many more dimensions are yet unexplored.
 

 

 

 

 

At the Highlander Folk School in 1957
Rosa Parks (second from right)
with (l-r) Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Charles Horton and Ralph Abernathy

 

Dorothy M. Zellner was a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1962 to 1967 and spent Freedom Summer, 1964, in Greenwood, Mississippi. After twenty years in the South, she returned to New York and worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the City University of New York. She has appeared in many books and television programs and was featured in TNT’s “Century of Women.”

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