Freedom Writer

Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years

Title Details

Pages: 454

Illustrations: 18 photos

Trim size: 5.625in x 8.750in



Pub Date: 02/01/2006

ISBN: 9-780-8203-2821-8

List Price: $30.95

Freedom Writer

Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years

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  • Reviews

Virginia Foster Durr (1903-1999) was a monumental champion of civil rights and yet, as a privileged white southern woman, an unlikely one. Freedom Writer is a collection of her letters from across three decades of struggle for the cause of racial equality. In 1951, returning to her native Alabama after a twenty-year absence, Durr was deeply affronted by the same unchecked racism she recalled from her childhood. To help understand the South and battle her sense of isolation, Durr wrote hundreds of letters-humorous, sharp, and observant-to her friends outside the region, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Hugo Black, Jessica Mitford, and C. Vann Woodward.

Durr often wrote from the movement's front lines-the sit-ins, freedom rides, and student protests. Moving in the same circles as Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., and others, Durr often put her life on the line as a bridge between blacks and whites during dangerous times. Countless details of this personal journey, and the shifting political landscape across which it unfolded, found their way into Durr's correspondence.

Originally published on the one hundredth anniversary of Durr's birth, Freedom Writer explores the life and times of a woman whose insatiable appetite for justice immersed her in many of the defining issues and events of the day.

Patricia Sullivan's editing is skillful. She supplies a useful introduction and explanatory headnotes for each of four chronological sections (1951-1955, 1956-1960, 1961-1965, 1966-1968). Deeply knowledgeable about southern history, African American history, and the intricacies of the New Deal, Sullivan is on solid ground as she explains the times and the correspondents of Virginia Foster Durr, some of whom were prominent indeed (Lyndon Johnson, C. Vann Woodward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jessica Mitford, and Clark Howell Foreman, for example). Commenting once on her attempts to write an autobiography, Virginia asserted that "all my life is in my letters" (p. 225). Sullivan's edition of Durr's correspondence will find many uses in our classrooms, keeping alive the experiences and opinions of a remarkable witness to history, in her own inimitable words.

—Pamela Tyler, Journal of Southern History

This is a chronicle of an extraordinary life. I should like to think that it might become one of those indispensable collections, valuable as the record of an indomitable woman and the struggle for American justice in the twentieth century.

—William Styron

Virginia Durr's courage, outspokenness, and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped change this nation forever.

—William Jefferson Clinton

Virginia Durr was passionately honest about the South and disarmingly frank in her criticism of her beloved section. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her letters to so many people in so many segments of American society.

—John Hope Franklin

Virginia's letters to friends like Eleanor Roosevelt, C. Vann Woodward and Lady Bird Johnson, ably assembled and annotated by Sullivan . . . crackle with intelligence and humor. An informal autobiography of a remarkable woman, as well as an unusual personal history of the civil rights movement.

New York Times Book Review

Patricia Sullivan should be commended for the concise yet graceful hand that she applies to these materials. Her efforts have produced a welcome addition to the literature of southern liberalism and to the phenomenon that Wilbur J. Cash defined in 1941 as the South's 'savage ideal.' There are many eloquent works by southern progressives on the run-Willie Morris's North Toward Home, for example-but Durr's letters can help students, scholars, and general readers understand southerners who ran homeward, returning to live in their native land because of family obligations, conscience, or an irrational love for the region.

Alabama Review

A passionate crusader for justice. Durr's account makes clear that the legislative gains of the mid-1960s, while critically important, did not remove the blot of racial inequality from American society. There was much left to be done. This engaging book of letters reminds us that it is the struggle that matters and that a life in struggle has its own rewards.

—Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School

Freedom Writer, in many ways, magnifies the strengths of [Durr's autobiography] Outside the Magic Circle, but makes it very clear how unique (and thus isolated) Clifford and Virginia Durr were in Montgomery in the 1950s and 1960s. Virginia Durr was exceptional; a woman who clearly understood both the privileges of whiteness and the social and psychological costs of segregation, as well as the penalties for opposing the racial structure of the South. The Durrs paid in spades for their efforts, and Virginia Durr's letters give a day-by-day account of the cost. The value of this collection is the cumulative effect of the 423 pages of letters. Durr's letters hammer home over and over some of the most important themes of the civil rights movement.

—Lisa Lindquist Dorr, Georgia Historical Quarterly

About the Author/Editor

PATRICIA SULLIVAN is a professor of history and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina and a former fellow at Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute. She is the author of Days of Hope and coeditor of Civil Rights in the United States. Sullivan has been a consultant on many films and documentaries, including HBO's Boycott.