Disrupters & Interlopers: Clifford Durr

Clifford Durr was a lawyer perhaps most famous for his defense of Rosa Parks after her December 1, 1955 arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, though his work for social justice reached further than that well-known case. Along with his wife Virginia, Clifford Durr was prominent among the group of white Southern progressives who help to change the social and political landscape of the region.

Clifford Judkins Durr was born in 1899 to a wealthy and prominent family in Montgomery, Alabama, and later attended the University of Alabama and Oxford University. After working as a lawyer in Birmingham, he accepted a job in Washington, DC during the Great Depression working within FDR’s New Deal. He later shifted his employment with the government to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), where, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama,”he fought for advertisement-free public broadcasting and open public access channels for community participation in the newly emerging television industry.”

In the late 1940s, after a disagreement with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee over the required loyalty oath, Durr left the federal government and went into private practice. His left-leaning work, trying to ensure civil rights and basic well-being for all people, then drew the attention of powerful enemies, including staunch Southern segregationists. That tension was exacerbated by his continued willingness to defend African-Americans in court.

Though he never achieved the widespread name recognition of his most famous client, Clifford Durr laid some of the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott’s success. Durr was instrumental, alongside attorney Fred Gray, in the legal maneuvering necessary to procure the 1956 Supreme Court victory that signaled the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation.

After continuing his progressive work into 1960s and ’70s, Clifford Durr passed away in 1975. A book about his life, The Conscience of a Lawyer by John A. Salmond, was published the University of Alabama Press in 1990, and Alabama Public Television also has The Durrs of Montgomery in its Alabama Storytellers series.

The Disrupters & Interlopers series highlights lesser-known individuals from Southern history whose actions, though unpopular or difficult, contributed to changing the old status quo. To read previous posts, click any of the links below:

Theresa Burroughs  •  Clement Wood  •  Charles Gomillion
Myles Horton  •  James Saxon Childers  •  Joan Little
Will D. Campbell  •  Ralph McGill  •  Juliette Hampton Morgan


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