By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Virginia Durr exuded Old South class. Daughter of a prominent white Alabama minister, the erudite Mrs. Durr attended Wellesley College, married Rhodes Scholar Clifford Durr and was close friends with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
She might have gone quietly through life hosting bridge parties and baby showers. It didn’t happen.
In 1938 she helped found the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, a group aimed at ending segregation. She lobbied alongside Eleanor to abolish the poll tax.
In 1948 she ran for the U.S. Senate from Virginia on the Progressive ticket. Most famously, she moved to Montgomery, Ala., and, along with her lawyer husband, bailed Rosa Parks out of jail.
In 1986 I went to hear the 83-year-old activist and author make a speech to North Alabama college students. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. A blanket of complacency had fallen over a country tired of second-guessing itself.
Feisty, white-haired Virginia Durr had the guts to tell her young audience, an exceptionally apathetic bunch, to get off their backsides.
“You young people just drive me absolutely nuts,” she began, startling the kids.
“You are happy, healthy, beautiful. But you don’t do anything.” The room grew quiet.
“Is anybody out there?” Virginia Durr demanded.
As modest as she was direct, Mrs. Durr would have none of it when a panel of scholars began dishing praise in her direction. Someone mentioned the South’s brighter day and her starring role in it.
“I would love to think I led the South to a world of joyful brotherhood,” she said. “But it just ain’t so. …. Blacks don’t trust whites. You can’t treat people so bad for 300 years and expect them to love you.”
Alabama’s answer to 50 percent unemployment for young black men, she said, was to build new penitentiaries. She said 85 percent of the prison population was black. “I believe it’s because they can’t get jobs.
“Doesn’t that make you mad? Isn’t anybody here willing to go on a march? I’m 83, and I’ll go on my one good leg.”
Lately I’ve thought a lot about Mrs. Durr, who died in 1999. I wish she could have lived to see young people occupying Wall Street. After decades of apathy, it would seem something, somehow, has stirred youth to action.
There’s been a lot of Radio Right talk about how unfocused and vague the Wall Street protestors are.
I’m wondering if any real revolution ever began with a neatly typed mission statement. Righteous anger doesn’t always manifest itself in elegant essay form.
The list of grievances is too long for a single placard: mass unemployment, state-sanctioned union busting, the growing canyon between rich and poor, Big Money-controlled government and a Republican right that just says “no” to any initiative that might make a dent in the misery.
I somehow think Mrs. Durr would be marching on her one good leg, happy to learn that there’s somebody out there after all.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.