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The Conscience of a Lawyer: Clifford J. Durr and American Civil Liberties, 1899-1975

The Conscience of a Lawyer: Clifford J. Durr and American Civil Liberties, 1899-1975

by John A. Salmond


Clifford Durr’s uncompromising commitment to civil liberties and civic decency caused him often to take unpopular positions. Durr was born into a comfortable, upper-middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899. He practiced law briefly in Montgomery, Milwaukee, and Birmingham, when at the urging of Hugo



Clifford Durr’s uncompromising commitment to civil liberties and civic decency caused him often to take unpopular positions. Durr was born into a comfortable, upper-middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899. He practiced law briefly in Montgomery, Milwaukee, and Birmingham, when at the urging of Hugo Black, his brother-in-law, he moved to Washington to work as a lawyer for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a creation of Roosevelt’s new Democratic administration, and later to help found the Federal Communication Commission.

While on the FCC he opposed bitterly J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to influence the granting of radio licenses for political reasons. As a lawyer in Washington, he found himself appearing on behalf of public servants and educators accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of Communist leanings during the late 1940s and early 1950s. With his wife, Virginia, who shared his conviction that blacks should enjoy exactly the same rights as other American citizens, he assisted in the defense of Rosa Parks. The Durrs’ life in Montgomery during the years of the civil rights revolution was often difficult, as the white South mounted its last defense of segregation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


“This book is well-researched and provides much inside information about Washington in the New Deal era and about the New Deal itself. The experience of the Durrs during the McCarthy era attests to the horrors of that period. It also tells much about the plight of Southern moderates during the Civil Rights era.” –James C. Cobb, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

A collection of Frome's writings of the 1960s and 1970s in which he describes the Southern Appalachian region and chronicles the battle to preserve it; and relates conservation to the American landscape, forestry, ethics, pacifism, education, social justice, and freedom and expression. No bibliography. This biography of the well-known civil libertarian and civil rights activist helps explain why a few Southern whites stood firm against the prevailing mores of their region, providing an important vanguard in the drive for Southern change. It also reveals the pervasive influence of New Deal liberalism, but, above all, it tells the story of an honorable Southerner and American. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Deborah J. Barrow
The magnitude of Clifford Durr's contributions to political and social issues from 1933 until his death in 1975 were such that scholarly works such as Peter Irons' NEW DEAL LAWYERS, or Ellen Schrecker's account of red-baiting in the 40s and 50s in NO IVORY TOWER, and even Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the civil rights movement entitled PARTING THE WATERS, could hardly fail to mention his crucial involvement in these monumental events. However, for the first time John Salmond, Professor of History at La Trobe University in Australia, has masterfully crafted and compassionately told the life story of this remarkable individual in THE CONSCIENCE OF A LAWYER. Salmond takes us on nothing less than a roller coaster ride of the personal trials and triumphs that Clifford Durr and his political activist wife Virginia encountered as they moved from the small, narrow world of Southern privilege and segregation to a public life engulfed in political controversy brought on by their sacrificial commitment to civil liberties. The book's success rests with Salmond's analytic treatment of Durr's multifaceted life. Through the chronicling of Durr's public and private activities, Salmond demonstrates remarkably well how the reformist ideals held by many of the New Dealers were inextricably linked to the values that were the basis for the stands taken on civil liberties during the Red Scare of the 40s and 50s and that ultimately formed the heart of the civil rights movement. The first third of the biography explains the path leading to Durr's involvement in the New Deal and the development of his concept of the public interest that made him into an ardent New Dealer. Salmond discusses how the young Durr developed a penchant for hard work during his rigidly formalistic years of private education in Montgomery, Alabama. He endured those times for the sake of the vacations that would take him to his greatest joy, spending time on his grandfather's farm in Wetumpka, Alabama. There he was exposed to a life of work and to individuals, many of whom were his only black playmates; it was a world that blissfully carried him far from his boarding school environment. However, Durr would eventually be rewarded for the energy that he devoted to his studies in those early years, and for his distinguished performance later at the University of Alabama, by earning a Rhodes Scholarship. The two years at Oxford (1920-1922), while bringing moments of fun and adventure, were a time that he described as his "period of exile" (p.32). Though he performed well in his studies, even finishing ahead of schedule, he was never quite comfortable in the Oxford environment. He was unaccustomed to the loosely structured instructional setting and was exposed for the first time to individuals of different cultures. Rather than leading him to shed his ethnocentricity, the experience merely reenforced his awareness of his Southern roots and emphasized for the first time his distinctiveness as an American. Page 17 follows: Upon his return to the states two events charted the course that Clifford Durr's life would take: his joining a major law firm in Birmingham in 1924, and his courtship and marriage to Virginia Foster in 1926, who would be his wife of nearly 50 years. Both experiences led directly to the role he played in effectuating Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Durr distinguished himself as a corporate attorney in drafting legal documents for the firm's primary client, Alabama Power Company, and through marriage he gained a brother-in-law, Hugo Black, whom he adored and who greatly influenced Clifford and Virginia's thinking on many issues. It was a call from the young Senator Black to Durr in 1933 that would forever change the Durrs' life by bringing them into a circle of committed social and economic reformists. Black asked Durr to come to Washington for an interview with the chief counsel of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Stanley Reed, for a job in the agency whose responsibility would lie in the recapitalization of banks and trusts, a key element in FDR's plan for economic recovery. As Black predicted, Durr's expertise quickly made him a vital member of a highly successful agency. By 1936 Durr had become a dedicated New Dealer, completely devoted to FDR's policies and exhilarated by being a part of the great social experiment that he saw occurring as the result of using public funding for the public interest. By 1940, Durr would take the initiative in responding to FDR's call for emergency preparedness by drafting the proposal for the creation of a public corporation that Durr envisioned as financing the expansion of defense-related industry either through public or public-private cooperative ownership. An important side benefit to the creation of the Defense Plant Corporation would be the introduction of new firms into the market that could compete with the monopolies that existed some segments of industry, such as the aluminum industry. While the DPC was easily embraced by the Congress and the President, Durr as its director was quickly pitted against powerful industrial owners and investors who did not share Durr's vision of the public interest, much less that of trust busting. Despite the success of the DPC, Durr increasingly found himself dissenting from decisions concerning corporate agreements that were being approved by the director of the RFC, DPC's parent agency. These decisions not only strengthened industry's role in ownership and monopolies, but worst of all for Durr, they permitted windfall profits made from public funds and the nation's war effort. In late 1941, Durr resigned from the DPC, ending his eight years of public service as a federal loan administrator. Something beyond his success as a federal administrator, however, had happened to Clifford Durr. During these eight years he had developed a concept of the public interest from an economic viewpoint rooted in the ideals of the New Deal, and had become a persuasive defender of the notion. Of equal importance was his exposure to the social and political ideals of the Durrs' circle of friends from the New Deal community, one "full of vitality, shared ideals, and the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself"(p.57). He was especially influenced on such matters by Virginia Durr, whose commitment to racial equality and voting rights as well as her association with the "liberal left" was becoming more visible. Also during this time, the Durrs met Jessica Mitford who would become one of their dearest friends. The young Jessica married to Winston Churchill's nephew, came to live with them in 1940 and remained with them during the heyday of the New Deal community at Seminary Hill. Their close association continued from that point forward, and perhaps even Page 18 follows: became stronger as a result of the political attacks sustained by Jessica Mitford for her increasingly notable leftist activities and affliation with the Communist Party. In the discussion of events from 1941 to 1954, Salmond presents his most interesting and crucial analysis, one that provides an understanding of the transition that Clifford Durr made from New Dealer to steadfast defender of civil liberties. Upon leaving the DPC, Durr was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission, at a time when FDR was trying to revitalize the FCC's role in regulating the power and monopoly in broadcasting which he thought posed a major threat to New Deal policies. This was to be Durr's most visible role in public service and his last. Armed with two strong beliefs, a "distrust of unregulated corporate powers"(p.75) and a growing need to advance the public interest, Durr set out to open the broadcast industry's doors to a more diverse and public voice, eventually achieving his vision of setting aside frequencies for educational broadcasting and drafting the official document of standards for issuing licenses. In his pursuit to democratize the airways, Durr increasingly found that he had to take stands on the free speech and associational rights of colleagues and license applicants suspected of leftist associations such as the Hollywood Radio Group. Consequently, he was drawn into a succession of battles with the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover, finally resigning the FCC in 1948 after drafting a thirteen page dissent on the FCC's adoption of Truman's Loyalty Program. In later years, Durr's FBI file, obtained by Virginia Durr through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that he had been placed under surveillance in 1942 as a direct result of his early defense of a colleague accused of belonging to left-wing groups (to which the likes of Thomas Dewey and Chief Justice Hughes belonged), and remained under FBI surveillance with periodic, harassing visits until 1965. The FBI scrutiny intensified when Durr left the FCC and joined the National Lawyers Guild in 1949. At the urging of his close friend and Yale Law Professor, Thomas Emerson, he became the Guild's president, primarily so he could have a platform from which to speak against the fear mongering tactics increasingly used by the HUAC and the FBI. By then, however, as Salmond so poignantly notes, Durr himself had become "a victim of the procedures he opposed so vehemently"(p.139). Durr returned to private life in 1948, by reluctantly opening a legal practice in Washington. Immediately his office was flooded by a stream of clients who as jobless victims of the loyalty program purge could find but only a handful of lawyers who would touch their cases and but one who would take on their cause without remuneration, Clifford Durr. At this point in the book, Salmond very subtly gives us an important clue to understanding the level of dedication that Durr had come to have for issues of individual rights, one that sets the stage for the role that he would play in Montgomery from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. Durr, he notes, not only defended those who had been falsely accused, but unlike other civil liberties lawyers of this period also defended individuals who actually were or had been members of the Communist Party as well as those in close association with those ideals. With this Salmond takes us to the final stages of controversy that resulted from Durr's commitment to individual rights. Page 19 follows: Ultimately, unable to make a living from the parade of loyalty cases, Durr left Washington in hopes of settling down to a quieter life and one in which he could provide better for his family. Instead, however, the Durrs found that not only was Clifford's reputation quick to follow them, but Virginia's long-term involvement with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and the National Committee for the Abolition of the Poll Tax, as well as her past membership in the Progressive Party also had been and would increasingly become the focus of suspicion. Indeed it caused Clifford Durr to resign a job with the National Farmers Union in Colorado within a year of taking the position. Beset by ill health and financial devastation, the Durrs packed up and returned to Montgomery in 1951 to be in the comfort and support of family and friends. The respite was to be a brief one. Against the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court's soon to be announced BROWN decision, Clifford and Virginia Durr became targets for any politician trying to discredit the Court or its liberal members such as Hugo Black. In 1954, Clifford Durr would have to take on the most difficult of all his defenses, that of his wife, Virginia, and the Durr's long-time companion, Aubrey Williams, both of whom were subpoenaed to appear in New Orleans before Senator Eastland's Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. Durr, with the aid of his and Virginia's long-time friend, Lyndon Johnson, successfully resisted Eastland and discredited the entire hearing, but not without considerable costs. The ordeal and its surrounding publicity worsened Clifford's health, fatally damaged his fledgling law practice, and increased the FBI's intrusion into their lives. Durr returned to Montgomery to a practice very different from the one he initially attempted to build. This time he became involved exclusively with cases concerning the violation of individual rights among the black citizens of Montgomery, who Durr believed were suffering violations of liberties and freedoms similar to those he had witnessed in Washington. Though this practice was being held together only by a financial thread, Durr found the new work rewarding, especially his relationship with a young black attorney, Fred Gray. Resigned by now that his struggle to protect civil liberties was one for life, Durr and Gray took on the entire region and nation when they together fashioned the case and appeals for Mrs. Rosa Parks whose refusal to give up her seat to whites on a bus in Montgomery would launch the modern civil rights movement. Reminiscent of the time in Washington of clients who were being purged, Durr's practice as well as his and Virginia's personal lives from 1956 through 1964 would be filled with the events and personalities of protest as the civil rights movement unfolded. Clifford Durr's law office as well as the Durr's home became a haven for many of the prominent and those not so noted who came to aid the South and the country through this transition. Clifford Durr's ability to push forward in the legal battle for civil rights was aided substantially by financial support from liberal philanthropists throughout the country, perhaps none of which was more important to the Durr's personally than that provided by Jessica Mitford. But still under surveillance and with a clientele in desperate need of a lawyer who would defend their civil liberties but who rarely had the money to pay for the services, he eventually made a financial decision to close his law practice in 1964. Page 20 follows: During the next several years, Clifford Durr took tremendous pleasure in being invited to give lectures at some of the more prestigious universities in the United States and abroad. He was especially moved by the reception he received as a guest lecturer at Oxford, returning as a distinquished alumnus and humanitarian some 40 years after his graduation from the school. He also had returned to the great solace in his life in 1969, his grandfather's farm where, aside the periodic travels to lecture, he would live out the remainder of his years. John Salmond is to be commended not just for chronicling the events in Clifford Durr's life in such an interesting manner, but for an absolutely superb job in explaining why Clifford Durr took the stands that he did. For this reason, every student of politics or history, including those who may be familiar with the episodes and personalities involved in this story, will find this a highly thought-provoking read.

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University of Alabama Press
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6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Normal0falsefalsefalseMicrosoftInternetExplorer4John A. Salmond is Professor of History at La Trobe University, Australia.

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