Virginia Durr was born in Birmingham Alabama. Raised by an African-American nanny, she was raised to believe that the Ku Klux Klan was the protection of the white way of life. It wasn’t until she attended Wellesley College that she began to challenge her own racist roots. The dining halls required that students sit with different classmates for each meal. Virginia rebelled against this policy, but a threat of expulsion led to her reluctant acceptance of dining with students whose skin color was different from hers.
She returned to Birmingham when she no longer had the funds to attend Wellesley. Three years later she was married and settled into being a wife and social figure. It was through her social volunteering that she began to know civil rights activists and the plight of others they were advocating for.
When her husband was appointed to a position in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, her own activism began to flourish. She became one of the founding members of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), a group formed to reduce segregation and improve the lives of African Americans in the South. She became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and worked to pass legislation to eliminate the poll tax.
When her husband’s career called them back to Montgomery, she took on a more grassroots role in the civil rights movement. She housed civil rights volunteers when they came to Montgomery. She became a friend of Rosa Parks. She was the source of funds to bail Rosa Parks out of jail when she refused to give up her bus seat. She helped Rosa’s family through the tough times they faced. Later, she supported Rosa with a scholarship to attend school.
When the Selma to Montgomery march was being planned, she housed and fed many of the volunteers. She became vocal in actively promoting many of the critical civil rights issues such as voting rights. Her activism continued into her 90s. She died at the age of 95.
Just imagine how a woman of privilege changed her views and beliefs about social justice. Our consciousness is shaped by direct contact with those different from ourselves. A PR campaign, an eloquent speech, a call for justice, or any other remote experience cannot have the impact that sitting across the table in a dining hall can have. Virginia Durr was shaped by direct experiences with those experiencing injustice.
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“Her courage, outspokenness, and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped change this nation forever.” – President Bill Clinton speaking upon the death of Virginia Durr