A Birthday Tribute to Virginia Foster Durr

Virginia Durr at her birthday party in 1993

Virginia Durr at her birthday party in 1993

Studs Terkel characterized Virginia Foster Durr in the introduction to her autobiography, Outside The Magic Circle, as a “well brought-up Southern white woman” who stepped outside the magic circle, abandoned privilege, and challenged the traditional Southern way of life. Were it not for Virginia’s work to eliminate the Poll Tax and other barriers, America would not be the great nation we are today. Much of the social change that took place in America this century stems from the work of this one woman.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1903, Virginia Durr turned ninety in August 1993. Nearly 400 of her friends gathered around her on the weekend of August 7, to help her celebrate the occasion. Daughter Lucy hosted the three day celebration at her home on Martha’s Vineyard, a small island, located an hour ferry ride off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her friends came from all over, some came from as far away as England and Australia. Many came from Montgomery.

Speaking to guests during the Saturday afternoon program, Humorist Art Buchwald described Virginia Durr as one who thrives on battling for justice. He named a long list of folks that Virginia considered enemies of freedom and she had absolutely no use for them. The list included J. Edgar Hoover, who according to Buchwald, was most responsible for keeping her blood pumping. Hoover remained at the top of her list of ‘ten greatest enemies of freedom’ until his death. Then, Buchwald told guests, Richard Nixon took his place. Today, he said, George Will and Ronald Reagan keep her in the pink.

Virginia Durr with her daughters, Birthday 1993

Virginia Durr with her daughters, Birthday 1993

Sheldon Hackney, Lucy’s husband, and President Clinton’s newly confirmed head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, served as our program host. He read a congratulatory letter to Virginia from First Lady Hillary Clinton. No one remembers if he read this letter before or after he introduced former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. At the time no one cared to worry which first lady was first. Everyone fixed on Mrs. Johnson telling stories from her friendship with Virginia that began in the 1930’s when President Lyndon Johnson was a young congressman.

Virginia Durr went to Washington in 1933 as the wife of Clifford Durr. President Roosevelt appointed Durr to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to open banks closed during the Depression. The Durrs would remain in Washington until 1948.

When status-quo-Washington rejected and ostracized Virginia for her work eliminating the poll tax and other racial barriers; the Durrs returned to Montgomery where they were castigated, denounced, and shunned. Even some of their close friends turned their backs on the family. Courageously, Virginia continued her battle for social justice.

Major and Margaret Cox with Virginia Durr, August 1993 Birthday Party

Major and Margaret Cox with Virginia Durr, August 1993 Birthday Party

I began thinking about Virginia’s life while there among her friends at Hackney House, looking like a United Nations family picnic. Pondering her life, the grand-daughter of nineteenth century Union Springs, Alabama physician and slave owner, Dr. Sterling Foster, illuminates a life of contrasts.

As a young woman, she attended Wellesley College, which nearly expelled her for refusing to sit and eat at a cafeteria table with a African American student. Virginia grew from this experience and overcame this and other barriers operating within southern tradition. Years later, she supported her long time friend, Rosa Parks, when she took her historic seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

One cannot resist musing over why all these people came to Martha’s Vineyard and waited in line for an opportunity to touch, hug, kiss, shake-hands, or just stare at this wonderful woman? Dressed in a pink dress and sitting in the white-wicker chair shown in the photograph that accompanied the 700 birthday party invitations, Virginia Durr shook the hands, kissed the cheeks or hugged the necks of each of the guests, all of whom she knew personally.

I am not sure why others came, but I know why I was on Martha’s Vineyard. I was there to say thanks Virginia. Thanks for working to eliminate the Poll Tax so that democracy can flow freely to all Americans, poor and rich alike. Thanks for befriending Rosa Parks and impregnating her with your courage that help give birth to the civil rights movement. Thanks for helping Attorney Fred Gray obtain admittance to the Alabama Bar in time to argue Rosa Parks’ case in the Supreme Court and win the right for non-white people to sit in any seat on a bus anywhere in America. Thanks Virginia, for meaningfully touching the lives of so many Americans. Thanks for imbuing us with courage to step from behind old barriers of ignorance and racial bigotry onto a path illuminated by freedom leading toward democratic justice.

Happy Birthday!

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Originally Published: 18 August 1993, Montgomery Advertiser

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