Virginia Foster was born in Birmingham in 1903 to
Dr. Sterling and Ann Patterson Foster. After two years at Wellesley College,
she began to question and challenge her world. She returned to Alabama where
she met and married Clifford J. Durr, a young attorney whose family was from
Montgomery, Alabama. Durr became a nationally known figure and recognized as a
defender of justice, social equality and civil rights.
As a young wife and mother in Depression-era
Birmingham, Durr became active in the Junior League and volunteered for the Red
Cross. While working with the Red Cross, she became aware that dairies poured
their milk into the gutters when it could not be sold. She proposed a project
for the Junior League to have the dairies donate the milk to the Red Cross to
be distributed to the poor.
When the Durrs moved to Washington D.C. for
Clifford to take a position in the Roosevelt New Deal administration, Virginia
worked with the Democratic National Committee women's section and First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt campaigning to abolish the poll tax. As a founding member of
the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, she served as the vice-chairman of
the Civil Rights Committee, a subcommittee to abolish the poll tax. Eventually,
the committee split from the Southern Conference in 1941 and became the
National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax. She continued for years to work for
women's rights, civil rights, labor issues and to abolish the poll tax.
While working to improve labor conditions and on
other labor issues, Durr worked with individuals who later became labeled
"communists" or "socialists." She was called before Senator James Eastland's
subcommittee investigating possible communist activities. Rather than name
anyone as a communist or socialist, she refused to respond to the committee's
questions. She was encouraged by more than one family member and friend to stop
associating with various people and organizations and there were many times
when the Durrs were ostracized from what was termed in her autobiography as the
"Magic Circle," the social elite of Alabama.
The Durr's interest and belief in social equality
continued to develop and grow especially as they personally witnessed social
injustice. With the Brown Decision and the integration of Montgomery public
schools, their home became a "safe place" for African-American student Arlam
Carr and other African-American students that attended Sidney Lanier High
School. Both Clifford and Virginia became well known white southern supporters
of the Civil Rights Movement with the Rosa Parks arrest in Montgomery in 1955.
On the evening of Parks arrest, E.D. Nixon and the Durrs went to the Montgomery
jail to obtain Parks' release. Their involvement continued throughout the court
case and the bus boycott.
Virginia Foster Durr died on February 24, 1999.
At the time of her death, The Atlanta Constitution described her as a
true moral authority and the white matron of the Civil Rights Movement.
President Bill Clinton commented at her passing: "Her courage, outspokeness,
and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped
change this nation forever."