A review of Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years , edited by Patricia Sullivan.
Virginia Durr (1903-1999), a stalwart of the civil rights movement who preferred to keep out of the spotlight for personal, pragmatic and political reasons, was a hero on the grand scale, as was her husband Clifford Durr (1899 – 1975).
Having both been born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, into reasonably prominent families, the Durrs moved as newlyweds to Washington DC, where Clifford, a lawyer, worked in the FDR administration during the heady days of the New Deal. Virginia, in addition to giving birth to and raising five children, one of whom died in infancy, became active in progressive politics. The Durr family lived near the capital city for nearly twenty years, and then, for reasons that reflect well on both of them, they returned to Montgomery, where, at great personal cost, over the next twenty five years they became two of the most prominent white activists for the rights of African Americans. The more one learns about this remarkable couple, the more their courage and unshakable decency leave one awestruck.
Through all those years in Montgomery, as Virginia became sucked up in the vortex of the epochal changes in social relations in the South, she wrote letters. Some of her letters were to famous people she knew quite well (Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Hugo Black, Jessica Mitford); others were to people you’ve probably never heard of. Her letters were by turns hysterically funny, profound, amazingly politically astute, eloquent, angry, or philosophical, but they were always passionate and always written in as distinctive a literary voice as you’re likely to encounter anywhere. They are marvels of English expository writing.
Freedom Writer, published in 2003, includes about 100 of such letters, presented in chronological order, grouped into four sections corresponding to periods in the civil rights movement. Patricia Sullivan (whose book Lift Every Voice, a history of the NAACP I reviewed here) edited the book. She provides a 26 page biographical introduction and introductions (of four or five pages each) to each of the four sections, in which she explains the wider context of the time. Sullivan also provides the occasional footnote to identify people or events referred to in the letters, and dozens of short introductions to particular letters that help the reader understand the context that the letter’s recipient would have. There is a short epilogue.
Virginia Durr was a remarkable and historically important woman, and Freedom Writer is a magnificent book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You should buy a copy and read it right now.
From Washington to Alabama: A Willing Return to Hell
After seeing Eyes on the Prize — in which, if I remember right, Virginia Durr is one of the few white people interviewed and the only one not introduced or captioned — I learned that Rosa Parks had done some sewing for the Durr family, and that on the night Mrs. Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, Virginia and Clifford had gone to the jail with NAACP leader E.D. Nixon to secure her release. From this history I made the entirely incorrect inference that the Durrs somehow stumbled into being civil rights activists by virtue of doing a kindness for somebody they knew as an employee, unaware of the possible implications of their good deed.
Boy, was I wrong about that. In fact Clifford and Virginia Durr were entirely aware of what they were doing when they went to Rosa Parks’ assistance. (For a lovely remembrance of the Durr/Parks relationship, see this piece by Dorothy Zellner, who knew them both). By the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott four years after the Durrs’ return to Montgomery, Clifford Durr had already been denounced as a Communist by no less a figure than arch red-baiter Richard Nixon (for the “crimes” of refusing to take or administer a loyalty oath and accepting Communists as legal clients) and editorialized against on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser. Virtually all of white Montgomery society shunned the Durrs; no whites patronized Clifford’s legal practice (because he also took black clients and had been smeared as a “Communist sympathizer”); their daughters were bullied at school as children of “nigger lovers”. And, although they had once been prosperous, they were poor. Furthermore, although the Durrs had paid Mrs. Parks to sew some dresses for their daughters, she was not their employee. The Durrs were fully aware that by coming to the aid of Mrs. Parks they were risking even greater isolation and danger.
Virginia Durr was 46 years old when she and her husband moved back to Alabama. She had already run for the U.S. Senate in Virginia on the Progressive Party ticket, and had been actively involved in Henry Wallace’s presidential bid. She knew Eleanor Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Pete Seeger and Jessica Mitford (one of her dearest friends and recipient of a large proportion of letters in Freedom Writer). The Durrs were anything but naive or unsophisticated. Virginia had been active for decades in the movement to abolish the poll tax. She was a member of the NAACP. In fact, before Mrs. Parks’ arrest, Clifford Durr had already provided legal representation to Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old girl whose refusal to move to the back of the bus and subsequent arrest provided the inspiration and model for Mrs. Parks’ action later that year. Virginia Durr considered herself Rosa Parks’ friend, not her employer — indeed, the Durrs were essentially broke and only hired Mrs. Parks sporadically — and it had been Virginia who had arranged the scholarship for Mrs. Parks at the Highlander Folk School, an experience that Mrs. Parks later said gave her the vision of what a non-racist America might be like, and thus the courage to do what she did.
Throughout the letters in this book a recurring theme is loneliness. Virginia had attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, had lived in the hubbub of Washington DC. She had many friends there, black and white. She described herself as gregarious, and everybody who knew her in Washington said she was outgoing, the life of the party, a commanding speaker, a natural leader, a social animal. In Montgomery she was the legal secretary to her husband’s struggling legal practice, who otherwise mostly kept to herself. At home “the phone never rang.” The Durr and Foster families regarded Virginia and Clifford as black sheep; their former friends avoided them, and although they had congenial relationships with many black people, truly intimate friendship among people of different races was impossible–for a black person to even call a white person by his or her first name was to risk being lynched. (Just as a Negro could never call a white person by his or her first name, it was almost as taboo, in white society, for a white person to refer to a Negro using an honorific such as “Mr” or “Mrs”. When, in 1951, Virginia referred to her (black) postman as “Mr. Edwards” instead of by his first name, it was such a scandal that several distant relations never spoke with her again.) For somebody as naturally social as Virginia Durr, this ostracism was nearly unbearable.
But although she wanted friends in the South, Virginia loathed white Southern culture in general. Clifford believed there was some good in traditional Southern ways, but found it harder and harder to find. As Virginia wrote, “Southerners have sacrificed all of the qualities they used to pride themselves upon, good manners, loyalty to old friends, kindness and benevolence. . .in their determination to preserve segregation.” So why did Virginia and Clifford Durr stay in Montgomery? That is the fascinating question at the core of this remarkable book.
They stayed because Clifford strongly, and Virginia somewhat, considered Montgomery home, and home was where one stayed. They stayed because they didn’t have better prospects anywhere else, given the red-baiting and witch hunts going on around the country (they had tried living in Denver for a year and hated it). But increasingly they stayed in Montgomery because they felt that the very soul of America was at stake, that the epicenter of the struggle was right there in Montgomery, that the South would either become more and more like Nazi Germany and take down the whole country with it, or it would experience a progressive rebirth — all depending on what happened in the civil rights movement. They stayed because they could do their best work to save America by staying where they were and working for change there.
Virginia deeply feared that fascism would overtake all of America — she considered the South virtually a country unto itself, and a fascist one at that–and that unless the Negroes (the word she used until the 1980’s or so) were made free, as free in every way as every other citizen, America itself would cease to be: the country would be torn apart by its own internal contradictions, and probably in a race war. She came to believe she had a moral obligation to stay on the front lines until the battle was won.
And she was never sure that the battle would be won. From the perspective of 2011, the successes of the civil rights movement seem inevitable. To people living through it, these letters show, the ultimate outcome was anything but clear. Virginia wrote often of how afraid she was, how she didn’t want to be a target of the Klan, how “I have a tendency to vomit when I read the papers, but that is getting under control.”
The line Virginia walked was exceedingly fine, a tightrope that she lived on for decades. She and her husband could provide legal aid to “Negroes”, be friendly with them, but they must not do so too visibly. To speak out too loudly, to take a stand too publicly, was to court the seething hatred at the heart of the Jim Crow South, and that, Virginia knew, might easily get them or their daughters killed. She watched with horror as the White Citizens Council and Klan attacked and destroyed Juliette Morgan, whose worst crime was to write a letter to the newspaper in which she called white men cowards (their cowardly response –ceaseless anonymous harassment, culminating in a cross-burning on her front lawn– proved her right, of course). This was a time when the federal government was virtually invisible in the South (except at the military bases that pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the otherwise backward economy), and state prosecutors made a mockery of the law. Not only did murderers go free, they were feted as public heroes. Virginia Durr had very good reason to want try to attract as little notice as she could.
As a political matter, too, she believed that whites should not assume leadership positions in the civil rights movement lest there be an implication of whites “giving” rights to blacks. Negroes were not being “given” anything, she insisted. They were merely claiming something that was theirs. (Despite Virginia’s efforts to stay out of the limelight, she was still forced to appear before a Senatorial inquiry, a kind of traveling kangaroo court organized by the odious Senator Eastland, of Mississippi. She said she wasn’t a Communist, then refused to testify any further. She regretted even that admission.)
So she wrote letters to people of influence in the North (excoriating Northerners for their cowardice, heaping scorn on Northern liberals); she supported her husband’s efforts to provide legal representation to Blacks in Montgomery and to help young Black lawyers gain experience, provided behind-the-scenes help in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (in photos taken inside churches where Martin Luther King spoke, Virginia and her teenage daughter Tilla are the only whites); provided a place to stay and local intelligence to visitors from the North (“an underground railroad in reverse”). These visitors came once or twice a year in the early days, but as the movement gathered steam, word spread that the Durr house was a safe place to stay. After the “Freedom Summer“, the visitors came by the hundreds. At the time of the Selma marches, her house was a virtual hotel and command center.
Here are a few representative samples from the letters.
In 1951 she wrote letter to her friend Otto, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, that correctly predicted the path her life would take:
“It is hard to even carry on an intelligent conversation as the basic premises are so different. Of course it is a constant pain to see the steady and continuous and taken for granted oppression of the Negroes. It is like a great stone that is lying on them–but it lies just as heavily on the white people too–and I feel so continually guilty that I am not doing anything about it. [. . .] I think the Negroes are stirring and they won’t be held down much longer–but I don’t see how they will ever forgive us for what we have done to them. And yet we must learn to live together here in the rest of the world. I puzzle over it a great deal to see if I can find a crack or an opening but I know all the time is that the real difficulty is that I want to help them but not at the price of being thrown out of my own group–which is what it amounts to here, just complete ostracism and loneliness, and then too no way to make a living–but all this is old stuff to you.”
A few months later she wrote again to Otto:
“Now I am utterly cut off. . . I listen to the conversations here and it is sometimes like a long dirge. Sickness–death–sorrow–drunkeness, despair, madness, faithlessness, brutality and corruption.[. . .] Cliff is a stronger person than I am and he is not so much affected, and then perhaps doesn’t expect as much as I do, he is always surprised and delighted when he finds even a glimmer among the people we see. I think it is so dim. . . the sullen repressed resentment of the Negroes–the bleak despair of the poor whites–and the frustrated cheapness of so many people who have some economic security but no moral security whatever–and what we see so often among the “old families” is the resigned acceptance of despair and tragedy and often madness. . . unless I can find some means of working to change it, or at least helping in some way however small, I think it would drive me to despair.”
This is a theme that Virginia comes back to over and over — that Southern white society is literally insane. And over the years, as African Americans begin to make real gains and the possibility of the crumbling of the old order becomes more real, the full ferocity of this madness manifests itself. Virginia ponders the origin of this insanity and comes up with some stunning insights (see below).
In 1952, after a year back in Alabama, she has begun to realize that she cannot stay neutral. She writes:
“There is a long and fierce struggle ahead and I think it will be another South Africa. I am still convinced the VOTE is the central issue.
While I often feel imprisoned and have mild claustrophobia here, especially since I am not yet in a position to take a positive stand against the evils, still I think we are in the right place and may in time do some good. For example, we have far more contact with the Negro community than we ever had in Washington or Virginia, not socially as we did there or in organizations, but as clients.”
Three years later, as the country awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown Vs Board of Education, Virginia writes to another friend.
“I have to confess that Montgomery, Alabama gets me down. Death, decay, corruption, frustration, bitterness and sorrow. The Lost Cause is right. The only gay and bright and coming spirit is among the Negroes and I am almost entirely cut off from them, though I do bootleg a bit. They will inherit the South and they should, as they have the vitality and the love of life.”
When Claudette Colvin was arrested, Virginia went to see her. She wrote to a friend:
“A fifteen year old Negro girl here was told to “move back” and refused as there were no seats available, and under the law she was right, but the bus driver and three huge big policemen dragged her off the bus, handcuffed her, and took her to jail. Southern chivalry at its highest. God, what brutes we breed down here. How the exceptions do stand out, and how wonderful they are. But actually it is not the brutes that do the damage. It is the vast mass of people who do nothing, take no stand, and just let the brutes have their own way.”
Although she was afraid and was tempted to “do nothing”, she found herself unable to do so. She wrote to Jessica Mitford,
“I spoke at the [NAACP] Youth Camp last Sunday. I try so hard not to do anything and then sometimes I can’t help myself and only hope we won’t be run out of town. Our tenure here is very feeble, but I am beginning to hope we can stay. If we can only hold on, this is the place for us to be. As what little we do here is worth ten times more than any place else.”
And all of the above happened before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When you read these early letters it’s as if you can see a tornado coming up behind her that she only perceives as a stiffening breeze.
I could go on and on but I would wind up citing the entire book, so let me close with two final passages about the source of the insanity of the Southern white male. It was written years after the above letters, after countless white riots across the South when courageous school children and college students braved cowardly mobs of white people merely to go to school; after white mobs attacked Freedom Riders while police stood by and watched; after bombings of churches, murders of unarmed civil rights workers, threats, intimidation, harassment, and open defiance of the law by police, sheriffs, state governors and United States senators.
Alabama (with the rest of the South) during those years was, as Virginia wrote in pleading letters to her former friend Lyndon Johnson, then President of the United States, a land of anarchy, utter lawlessness; of mob rule and fascism.
Durr believed that the typical Southerner, in particular the man, was literally made insane by the culture of oppression and injustice that he felt compelled to support, even though it kept him down as well as it did the Negro. After Jessica Mitford came to Montgomery on assignment for Esquire Magazine and found herself caught up in two riots, nearly killed by white thugs (the car she borrowed from the Durrs was overturned and set on fire) she wrote about the hate and paranoia-filled world view of the poor Southern white man. Virginia wrote in response,
“This is the problem that is so hard. Everything you said about them is true, they are ugly, mean, full of hatred, self-righteous and ignorant and also POOR. But while all of this is true and true indeed, it does no good to simply say so unless we realize that it is a disease to be cured, not just an ugly manifestation of poor-spiritedness. I think this is the thing that Cliff has taught me above all others, that it does no good to just call names. Certainly everything you say and everything everybody else has said about the South is true–worse if anything can be, and certainly the poor whites are the most obnoxious and unattractive group in the South. BUT they represent just exactly the same kind of people you have everywhere, this is what oppression and poverty and false religion and despair does to people. It does not make them any nobler and so the thing is not to exclaim over how awful they are but to to try to find out why they are so awful and what to do about it, and stressing their awfulness does no good at all as I think fundamentally they are aware of that and that is what makes them so mean.”
And later she ventured a daring analysis of where this insanity came from:
“You can’t understand these white Southern racists purely on the basis that they need cheap Negro labor, it is the long generations of guilt when they took the black women in the face of the total helplessness of the black men that must haunt them and turn them into savages, or the fact that they are denying their own children, or their blood brothers and sisters.”
The great value of this book is not merely that it documents how Virginia Durr, along with her husband and a few others, found the courage she needed and a way to play her part in what she called the “epic struggle for freedom of all Southerners” (for she believed the rot and corruption and soul-sickness of the South all came from oppression of the Negro). It is also that her observations are so startling, not just about individual acts, but of whole political and cultural movements.
One doesn’t want to paint too rosy a picture of race relations in America today, but clearly things are vastly better now than they were then. In the South, there are hundreds of elected Black government officials. There are black lawyers and judges. The universities are integrated. Black and white men and women can address each other by their first names without fear of being hanged for it. Conversely they can use honorifics without being made pariahs for it. Virginia Durr deserves at least some measure of credit for this.
It gives one great joy to read the epilogue to the book, to learn that although Cliff died in 1975 he at least had some recognition and moral (if not financial) reward for his life spent in the trenches on the side of justice. And it gives one great joy to see the photo of Virginia Durr, age 90, on stage, in a wheelchair, wearing a cap and gown, receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Alabama.
1. Clifford Durr was an FCC commissioner and in line to be chairman of the FCC. He had been nominated by President Harry Truman. He had a big income and lots of influence and connections that he clearly could have parlayed into a very comfortable livelihood after retiring from government service. But under the pre-McCarthyite Cold War hysteria then gripping Washington, as FCC Chairman Durr would have been obliged to take a loyalty oath himself and to administer loyalty oaths to his subordinates. Furthermore he would have been expected to make policy decisions regarding access to the airwaves based on innuendo provided by J.Edgar Hoover’s anonymous FBI agents. Rather than chair the FCC under these conditions, Durr resigned and returned to Montgomery to set up a law practice in which most of his clients were poor black people, many of whom could not afford to pay their bills. His wife Virginia, who was reasonably prominent in Washington in her own right and a former U.S. Senate candidate, agreed to go back to Montgomery with him. Shortly after their arrival there she enrolled in secretarial school to learn typing and shorthand.