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A Southern Belle Who Battled Racism

February 24, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Like all good Southern girls, Virginia Foster Durr spent the first 22 years of her life looking for a husband. Unlike most Southern girls, she spent the next 60 working for equal rights.

Actually, Durr would probably demur and correct that latter figure to 50 years. "You can't be self-righteous about it," Durr said. "I was just as racist as anyone until I was 30 years old and went to Washington."

That was in 1933, the very early days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Durr's lawyer husband, Clifford, had been appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. Her brother-in-law, Hugo Black, was serving on the Supreme Court. Durr seized the opportunity and the ambiance of Washington to plunge into political and civil rights activities that would fill an entire autobiography, "Outside the Magic Circle," published by the University of Alabama Press.

'Going With the Wind'

"There were three ways for a well-brought-up young Southern white woman to go," Studs Terkel writes in the introduction.

"She could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern belle. Gracious to 'the colored help,' flirtatious to her powerful father-in-law and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. In short, going with the wind.

"If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy--on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one stunning Southern belle.

"Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruises of all sorts and defamation would be her lot. Her reward would be a truly examined life. And a world she would otherwise never have known."

Writes Terkel: "It is the third road Virginia Durr traveled."

Last week, Durr left her home in Montgomery, Ala., to be honored at a party in the library of New York University attended by a blue-ribbon list of much of liberal New York. With her silver hair swept into an ornate twist, wearing a long black velvet suit with a white ruffled blouse and carrying a dainty tapestry handbag to house the cigarettes she still occasionally indulges in, the 82-year-old Durr was warmly embraced by Bobby Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Emily. Carlos and Sylvia Fuentes shook her hand. Rose and Bill Styron hugged her. Mike Wallace greeted her admiringly. At one point she was seated, flanked by columnist Art Buchwald and cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

For a moment, anyway, it was living disproof of Durr's lament that "There's no left left."

Halfway through the evening, Buchwald narrated "This Is Your Life, Virginia Durr" with vignettes from her remarkable experiences. Arriving in Washington 50 years ago, Durr immediately immersed herself in an ultimately successful battle against the poll tax. She worked early and long in the civil rights movement: In fact it was she and Clifford Durr who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail in 1955 when the Montgomery seamstress was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus.

Extracted a Mirror

As a gesture of support for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, Durr ran for the Senate. "It was ridiculous," she said. "I ran because nobody would mention his name. We decided to run local candidates so we could get his name in the paper."

Accused by Sen. James O. Eastland, the Democratic senator from Mississippi who died last week, of "trying to overthrow the government by force and violence," Durr refused to answer his questions when she was summoned before his committee in Washington. Instead, Durr extracted a mirror from her handbag and calmly--in a picture that ran on front pages around the country--proceeded to powder her nose.

"I told him I stood in total contempt of his committee," Durr said. "I was determined that I would not answer any of his questions. . . .

"It was like Alice in Wonderland," Durr said. "They said I would go to the White House and Mrs. Roosevelt would slip me things she'd got from the President, and then I would slip them to a Communist spy ring."

Threatened with jail for refusing to answer Eastland's questions, Durr called on her old friend, Lyndon B. Johnson, then a senator from Texas. "Well, I'd known him for years," Durr said. Lady Bird Johnson's family came originally from Alabama, and she and Durr had become close friends in Washington.

"So I called Lyndon. Lady Bird answered the phone and said Lyndon was in bed. And I said, 'Well you go in and wake him up.' She did. I told him that we were all being threatened to be put in jail by Jim Eastland. And he never said anything, he didn't go on record. All we know is we didn't get put in jail, and Jim Eastland swore he was going to put us all in jail. The whole thing was just like a Kafka episode. It nearly ruined my husband's law practice."

One day before Durr came to New York for the festivities honoring her and her book, Eastland died at age 81. "Well I don't believe in speaking ill of the dead," Durr said, "but you can hardly expect me to mourn him, can you?"

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