Clifford Judkins Durr

Is your surname Durr?

Research the Durr family

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Clifford Judkins Durr

Birthplace: Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama, United States
Death: May 12, 1975 (76)
Grandfather's farm, Elmore County, Alabama, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Wesley Durr and Lucy Durr
Husband of Virginia Heard Durr
Father of Private; Private and Private
Brother of John Wesley Durr, Jr.; James Durr; Lucy Dunn and Kate Elmore

Occupation: Lawyer, civil rights activist
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
view all

Immediate Family

About Clifford Judkins Durr

Clifford Durr (1899 – 1975) was an Alabama lawyer who played an important role in defending activists and others accused of disloyalty during the New Deal and McCarthy eras, and who represented Rosa Parks in her challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance requiring the segregation of passengers on buses in Montgomery that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Durr was born into a patrician Alabama family. After studying at the University of Alabama he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He returned to the United States to study law, then joined a prominent law firm in Birmingham, Alabama in 1924. In 1926 he married Virginia Foster, whose sister would be the first wife of Hugo Black.

Government service

Clifford had risen to a full partner in his law firm by 1927. His income was such that he was little affected by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. As economic conditions worsened, both Clifford and Virginia were becoming more aware of the inequality and injustice which characterized many responses to the collapse. It was this awareness that caused Clifford to unexpectedly leave the firm early in 1933. When members of the junior staff were laid off for financial reasons, Clifford suggested that the more senior members of the firm, including himself, take a pay cut in order to avoid future firings. This suggestion was not supported by the other senior staff. Cliff thus found his continued association with the firm to be untenable. A few weeks after leaving this position, Cliff's brother-in-law, Black, then a Senator, asked him to come to Washington, D.C. to interview for a job with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the agency charged with recapitalizing banks and trusts. Durr took the job, becoming a dedicated New Dealer in the process. He resigned from that agency in 1941 after a series of disagreements with his superiors over their approval of agreements with defense contractors that allowed them to concentrate their monopoly position and derive windfall profits from war preparation efforts.

President Roosevelt then appointed Durr to the Federal Communications Commission, a politically sensitive position as FDR sought to counter the increasing power and concentration of broadcasters, many of whom were opponents of the New Deal. Durr supported FCC chairman James Lawrence Fly in defending the commission's program of regulation before the House Select Committee to Investigate the FCC, and unsuccessfully petitioned Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn to remove the committee's chairman, E. E. Cox, for conflict of interest. Durr campaigned to set aside frequencies for educational programs and to sell them to more diverse applicants, some of whom were attacked for their leftist politics. This spurred investigations of the FCC by the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Representing dissenters

Durr resigned from the FCC in 1948 after dissenting from its adoption of a loyalty oath demanded by the Truman administration. Although Durr did not know it, the FBI had already put him under surveillance in 1942 because he had defended a colleague accused of left-wing political associations. His wife's vigorous support for racial equality and voting rights for blacks and their friendship with Jessica Mitford, a member of the Communist Party, made both of them even more suspect. The FBI stepped up its interest in Durr in 1949, when he joined the National Lawyers Guild. He subsequently became the President of the Guild.

Durr opened a law practice in Washington, D.C. after leaving the FCC. He was one of the few lawyers willing to represent federal employees who had lost their jobs as a result of the loyalty oath program; he took many of their cases without charging them a fee. Durr did not apply any litmus test of his own, choosing to represent both those who had been members of or closely aligned with the Communist Party and those falsely accused of membership. Durr subsequently represented Frank Oppenheimer, brother of "father of the atomic bomb" Robert Oppenheimer, and several other scientists investigated for disloyalty by HUAC.

Durr and his wife moved to Colorado to work for the National Farmers Union when it became evident that he could not make a living defending those accused of disloyalty. However his wife's political activities, as a member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the National Committee for the Abolition of the Poll Tax, her past membership in the Progressive Party and his own political activities caused him to lose that position as well.

Civil rights work

The Durrs then returned to Montgomery, Alabama in the hope of returning to a more prosperous, less controversial life. However, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi soon subpoenaed Clifford Durr and his associate Aubrey Williams to a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security investigating the Highlander Folk School, with which both Durrs and Williams had been associated. With the assistance of Senator Lyndon Johnson Durr succeeded in discrediting the hearing, but only after nearly coming to blows with a witness in the hearing room. In the process, however, Durr's health and law practice suffered, as Durr lost most of his white clients while the FBI increased its surveillance of him and those around him.

Durr continued to practice in Montgomery as counsel, along with a local attorney Fred Gray, for black citizens whose rights had been violated. He and Gray were prepared to appeal the conviction of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African-American woman charged with violating Montgomery's bus segregation laws in March, 1955, but elected not to do so when E.D. Nixon, later of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and other black activists decided that hers was not the case to use to challenge the law.

Durr was therefore ready in December, 1955, when police arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give her seat to a white man. Durr called the jail when authorities refused to tell Nixon what the charges against Parks were and he and his wife accompanied Nixon to the jail when Nixon bailed her out. Nixon and Durr then went to the Parks' home to discuss whether she was prepared to fight the charges against her. Durr and Gray represented Parks in her criminal appeals in state court, while Gray took on the federal court litigation challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.

Durr continued to represent activists in the civil rights movement, supported by financial support from friends and philanthropists outside the South. He eventually closed his firm in 1964. He lectured in the United States and abroad after his retirement. He died at his grandfather's farm in 1975.



Clifford Durr (1899-1975) was a lawyer and nationally respected defender of civil liberties during the post-World War II Red Scare, a supporter of the civil rights movement, and counsel to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. In his early life he reflected the race- and class-based attitudes of his Alabama contemporaries, but during the years of the Great Depression and the subsequent New Deal he experienced an intellectual awakening. With the help of his activist wife, Virginia Foster Durr, Clifford Durr defended those unable to defend themselves, often at the expense of his own livelihood.

Clifford Judkins Durr was born on March 2, 1899, to John Wesley Durr and Lucy Judkins Durr, a privileged Montgomery family with deep Alabama roots. His grandfather John Wesley Durr was a Montgomery cotton factor (a business agent for cotton growers) in the years just before the Civil War, and his grandfather James Henry Judkins owned a plantation; both served as captains in the Confederate Army. A few years before Clifford's birth, his father founded the business that became the Durr Drug Company, and the basis for the family's comfortable life.

Educated in Montgomery private schools, Durr was elected president of his class at the University of Alabama and later won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England. He graduated in 1922 from Oxford with a coveted law degree, but he considered his two years there a time of exile from the American South. Upon his return he joined a Montgomery law firm run by family friends. He also practiced law for a year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After passing both the Wisconsin and Alabama bar exams, he accepted a position with the Birmingham corporate-law firm of Martin, Thompson, Foster, and Turner, which opened doors for him into Alabama's legal establishment.

Steady, scholarly, good looking, and well-liked, Durr enjoyed his work and was poised for a successful legal career. In 1926 Durr married Virginia Foster, the well-educated daughter of a Birmingham Presbyterian minister of patrician descent who had lost his pulpit in a doctrinal dispute. Her family lived in what she called "genteel poverty," a designation she later distinguished from the real poverty she saw or understood for the first time in Depression-era Birmingham. The Durrs' had four daughters and a son who died at age three.

Durr accepted a legal job in Washington, D.C., with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in 1933, at the beginning of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. Alabama Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who was married to Virginia's sister, Josephine Foster, recommended his brother-in-law Durr for the position in the New Deal agency. For the next 17 years the Durrs lived in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, where they developed lasting and intellectually challenging friendships with social reformers from the South and other parts of the country. Durr served as a productive and innovative lawyer for the RFC for seven years, and when that position ended, he was appointed a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There, Durr gradually began focusing his work on protecting the public interest rather than advocating for corporate banking or broadcasting interests. At the FCC he fought for advertisement-free public broadcasting and open public access channels for community participation in the newly emerging television industry.

During Durr's last two years at the FCC, he became embroiled in conflicts among the FCC, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding civil-liberties issues. He resigned in 1948 in protest of President Harry Truman's Federal Loyalty Oath Order, which he saw as abusive of FCC employee rights. That year Virginia Durr ran for the Senate from Virginia representing the short-lived, very liberal Progressive Party, which nominated their friend, former Vice President and Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, for the Presidency. Despite his disagreements with Truman's policies, Cliff Durr stayed a loyal Democrat during the conflict-ridden campaign of 1948. The Durrs remained in the Washington area for two more years, and Clifford established a private law practice that focused almost exclusively on civil-liberties cases which gained the attention of the FBI, and intermittent surveillance by the agency. FBI interest increased when Durr became president of the left-liberal National Lawyers Guild in 1949. The Durrs left Washington and spent a few unhappy months in Denver, Colorado, where Durr headed the National Farmers Union, then returned to Alabama in 1951.

Durr was devoted to his home state, and despite ill health and other obstacles, he made every effort to establish a general law practice in Montgomery in the early 1950s. Most of his clients dropped away in 1954 after the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, headed by Mississippi's arch-segregationist Senator James O. Eastland, called Virginia Foster Durr to New Orleans, Louisiana, to testify in highly publicized hearings on the allegedly subversive and decidedly integrationist Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). The publicity would affect Cliff Durr's law practice, but their very close personal relationship and the similarity of their political views guaranteed his active presence at these threatening and frightening hearings. As a liberal member of the Women's Committee of the Democratic Party and chair of the anti-poll tax committee of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, a broader organization which preceded SCEF but had folded in the late 1940s, Virginia Durr had already made an enemy of Eastland. Clifford Durr appeared as counsel for his good friend Aubrey Williams, a resident of Montgomery, president of SCEF, and publisher of the magazine of the National Farmer's Union, and he gained unfortunate notoriety when he threw a punch at the government's star anti-communist witness, who lied about Virginia on the stand. Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, a friend from the Washington years, helped quell further harassment by Senator Eastland and his committee, but all hope for Durr's law practice representing Montgomery businesses died in New Orleans.

After the Eastland hearings Durr often defended black Montgomerians in civil rights cases that mirrored, in his mind, the civil liberties cases of the professional men and women he had defended in Washington. These new clients, however, could seldom pay for his services.

In December 1955, he aided Rosa Parks in posting bail on the night of her arrest for refusing to give up her seat in the white section of a Montgomery public bus. He then assisted Fred Gray, a young African American attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in fashioning Parks's appeal.

Throughout the height of the civil rights era, he defended clients protesting police brutality or wrongful prosecution. One lengthy federal case finally vindicated a mostly-white student group arrested while dining in a black Montgomery restaurant. Clifford opened his law library, and Virginia opened their home, to new civil rights lawyers needing assistance and to civil rights workers drawn to Montgomery. Because the Durrs had made fast friends among liberal philanthropists during their Washington years, they received financial support that enhanced Durr's ability to aid both his clients and movement volunteers. The Durrs remained barely afloat financially, despite this outside assistance, and federal and state agencies kept them under surveillance until 1965, a year after he closed his law practice. In 1969, the Durrs moved to "Pea Level," the farm in Wetumpka that they had inherited from the Judkins family.

Durr's civil rights work brought him accolades and invitations to speak at prestigious American universities and at Oxford in his final years. He received awards from the Southern Regional Council and the New York Civil Liberties Union. An editorial in The Nation, entitled "The Conscience of a Lawyer," lauded his professional skill and his inclination to conduct himself honorably no matter how difficult the situation. Clifford Durr died on May 12, 1975, and several memorial services honored him, including a large gathering in Washington, D.C. Eulogists praised him as an honest and principled lawyer and public servant, and as a devout man who worked tirelessly to support the Bill of Rights, his country, and his family. Both Clifford and Virginia Foster Durr are buried in Montgomery's Greenwood Cemetery.

view all

Clifford Judkins Durr's Timeline

March 2, 1899
Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama, United States
May 12, 1975
Age 76
Grandfather's farm, Elmore County, Alabama, United States