She was born a southern aristocrat. One grandfather was a Confederate captain and later, a U.S. congressman. An uncle was governor of Tennessee. Her grandmother, who lived on a plantation, rode to church in a carriage lined in red satin. Virginia Durr herself once dressed in hand-sewn underwear of linen and lace and was waited on by black servants descended from slaves.
But well before middle age, Durr had become an activist -- a foot soldier in the New Deal and the civil rights movement. It was she and her husband who bailed out Rosa Parks the night she set the civil rights movement in motion by refusing to go to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. It was she who sat stern, ladylike and mute before a Senate panel accusing her of communist leanings. "I stand in utter and complete contempt of this committee," she told the subcommittee chairman, Sen. James Eastland, and proceeded to powder her nose on the stand as the television cameras rolled.
This week, in an elegant condominium overlooking Washington, surrounded by aging compatriots from long-ago crusades, Virginia Durr reminisced of battles against the poll tax, witch hunts and segregation -- a life that took her, in the words of author Studs Terkel, "outside the magic circle" of southern womanhood.
In a ladylike drawl, she pooh-poohed her ostracism by southern society, though it was painful at the time. And she chatted breezily of "Lyndon" (Johnson) and "Hugo" (Black, her brother-in-law) and the heady days of the New Deal and the civil rights movement.
The old compatriots had gathered to toast Durr's autobiography, "Outside the Magic Circle," just published by the University of Alabama Press, but even more to honor a remarkable life and the era that spawned it. She was in her day a rare strain of southern woman -- moved by experience and a steel grit to upend tradition, but always in the style of a lady.
To talk to Durr, or to read the book, is to take a box seat on the human dramas behind a tumultuous era of history.
"There's no way I could feel self-righteous because I was raised to see things exactly the way other southerners did," said Durr, an earthy, large-boned woman who piles her snow-white hair high on her head and talks a blue streak. "Like most southern girls, I was a snob, and I might add my daughters still believe I am."
"I do," broke in daughter Tilla Durr, a psychiatric social worker.
"You see, I always talked about people being 'as common as pig tracks,' " Durr went on. "That's an old southern expression that means vulgar. To me, you're vulgar if you have no feeling for other people. I call it a lack of good manners, a complete lack of identification with people who are suffering. I called James Eastland as common as pig tracks."
"I remember Virginia would see [the late Alabama senator] John Sparkman at a party in Washington, and he'd kiss her and be very gracious," recalled Robert Straus, a retired Washington businessman who met Durr through the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in the 1930s. "She'd see him at a party in Virginia, and he'd be cordial and shake hands. But when he saw her at a party in Alabama, he'd ignore her."
"The strain of the southern lady is always there," said Hollinger F. Barnard, a Birmingham attorney who edited Durr's book. "Virginia and I were selling the book in Alabama, and someone asked what she thought of Jim Eastland. And she said: 'I can't tell you. One, it's Sunday and two, I'm a southern lady. The fact that he's a son of a bitch isn't my fault.' "
When she came to Washington in 1933 with her husband Clifford Durr, who joined the Roosevelt administration, she became vice chairman of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, taking on a southern institution that had kept the ballot from women and the poor. And she helped lead the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, an often-tempestuous marriage of liberals, populists, a few southern businessmen and civil rights and labor groups.
When the Durrs returned to Alabama in the 1950s, they found themselves at the center of the fledgling civil rights movement. Virginia Durr had befriended Rosa Parks, a Montgomery tailor's assistant whom she met through leaders of the NAACP, and was with her the night she decided to allow her case to be taken to the Supreme Court.
Clifford Durr remained a legal adviser to the movement, and Virginia Durr became a "facilitator," working behind the scenes to build support. In the process, she befriended Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders, and played hostess to hundreds of civil rights workers from around the world who bunked at her home during the Selma march and other demonstrations.
The book is a compilation of thousands of hours of interviews with Durr, and it reads the way she talks -- a blend of social criticism and southern belle-isms. (She refers to Lyndon Johnson once in the book as "the sweetest young man" and recalls that Tom Hayden "smelled to high heaven" when he stayed at her house after being jailed for demonstrations in Albany, Ga.)
She tells of Hugo Black being branded a "bolshevik" in the 1930s in Birmingham for representing carpenters, mine workers and railway unions against corporations. "Mother and Daddy didn't know what a bolshevik was, but they worried when word came to them that Hugo was one," she writes. "But even so, Hugo was in the country club and was very popular and considered to be quite a catch."
The controversy over Black's one-time membership in the Ku Klux Klan, which almost blocked his confirmation for the Supreme Court, perplexed her at the time. To her and her family, the Klan seemed at the time nothing less than a standard-bearer for southern honor, she writes.
"You can't imagine the contradictions in my life . . . I would go to see 'Birth of a Nation' and believe that the Klan was noble and wonderful and I was proud that my grandfather had been a member of it. So when people said Hugo Black was a member of the Klan it didn't bother me at all."
It was Washington and the 1930s that changed her views on race. Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, Durr joined the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee and soon enlisted in the anti-poll tax campaign, a pet project of the first lady. Through that effort, and the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, aimed at aiding the Depression-era South, she experienced what she called "a first-class education in the stupidity of southern racism."
She described the heady first meeting of the Southern Conference in Birmingham, a virtually unprecedented, biracial gathering in a city segregated by law. Hugo Black gave the closing speech. "I can see it now," she writes, "white on one side and black on the other and Mrs. Roosevelt and Hugo standing on the platform."
Through Black, she said, she became friends with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Abe Fortas and other New Deal stalwarts and they began dining together frequently. In her book, however, Johnson does not emerge as a great friend of the early anti-poll tax movement:
"Lyndon would put his arm around me -- Lyndon put his arm around all the girls -- and say, 'Honey, I know you're right. I'm for you. I know the poll tax ought to be abolished, but we haven't got the votes. As soon as we get the votes I'll see that we do it.' "
Nor were many congressmen helpful when she and other women began lobbying them in 1940 to oppose the poll tax.
"Well, frequently they'd chase you around the desk, literally. You'd see this large mountain of a man rise up and come toward you, and you'd back off toward the door . . . Senator [Kenneth] McKellar of Tennessee, who was one of the worst, must have been in his eighties. Senator McKellar was like an old bird dog. He'd just see a woman come in the room and he was right after her."
The Durrs remained in Washington through the early waves of anticommunism after World War II, and both came under attack -- she, for allowing communists to work on the anti-poll tax campaign and he, as an attorney who represented several accused communists fired from their jobs. They and their children left the city in 1950.
Back in Montgomery, they found themselves pariahs in many quarters. Vannie Stewart, a friend, recalled at the party that when she sponsored Virginia Durr for membership in the local Business and Professional Women's Club, the group blackballed her. "And I was so mad at them that I resigned," Stewart said.
Durr was one of the only white people at a mass civil rights meeting in Montgomery, after the conviction of Rosa Parks, led by the then-unknown Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She and her husband also were the only whites who came to King's house when it was bombed two years later, she writes, and they heard him preach nonviolence to a crowd bent on vengeance:
" 'Now you have got to realize that if you respond to this hatred with hatred, you're putting yourself exactly on the same plane with these people,' " she quotes King as saying. " 'This is as low an act as a person can do, to bomb a man's house with his wife and child in it.' "
As she talked and reminisced, she repeatedly wondered aloud about a younger generation that she sees as greatly changed from her own. She told of meeting Charles Robb, now governor of Virginia, while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard several years ago with Lady Bird Johnson. "I remember Lynda said to me: 'Now Virginia, don't get disappointed. Chuck is not a liberal. He's a very nice fellow but he couldn't get elected in Virginia if he was a liberal.' "
She said she is amazed that young Americans do not rise up against President Reagan -- on the arms race and on policies toward the poor.
"What Reagan is doing is the same as when he was selling refrigerators so many years ago," she said. "He was absolutely marvelous then. You felt like if you buy this refrigerator, you are going to have the happiest, most fulfilled life in the world. And he's still a salesman, but he's not even selling something as substantial as a refrigerator anymore."
Durr's book party was held at the Arlington home of attorney Charles Morgan Jr., a native Alabaman whom Durr described as one of the only lawyers in the state who "wasn't afraid of talking to us" in the 1950s. Also on hand was Durr's longtime Montgomery friend, Frances (Scotty) Smith, daughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.); Washington attorney David Carliner, the first volunteer in the anti-poll tax campaign; Wall Street stockbroker Palmer Weber, a veteran of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare.
So many of them were targeted as alleged communists during the McCarthy era that at one point, someone shouted out: "Is there anyone in this room who hasn't been investigated?"
Looking out at her old compatriots, Virginia Durr turned wistful:
"The unfortunate thing about getting old is you know you're not going to do the changing anymore," she said. "It's got to be the younger generation. And I don't understand them. These yuppies! At a time in our history like this, to be worrying whether you have the right white wine with the quiche is rather silly. My heavens!"
She shook her head, and turned with relish to autographing her memoirs.