AUBURN — Virginia Durr was 15, living in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 when her family got word that their friend, Rosa Parks, was jailed for refusing to move to the back of a public transit bus.

Durr’s father told her to watch her younger sister. “We have to get Rosa Parks out of jail,” he told her.

Rosa Parks was “warm and smart and lovely and kind,” Durr told fifth- and sixth-graders at Fairview Elementary School on Thursday. “She was like my favorite aunt. We were stunned.”

The daughter of activists, Durr was a teenager in the thick of the civil rights movement. She disagreed with the segregationists around her, including her grandmother. “My grandmother was the daughter of slave owners,” she told students.

After a lifetime of working for social justice, Durr, 71, now lives in Sweden, Maine, where she volunteers at a soup kitchen and gets involved in causes. “I haven’t retired,” she said.

 Alabama in the 1950s was scary but exciting, Durr told students.

“I loved Martin Luther King. I loved Rosa Parks,” she said. “I felt a real identification with these people who were saying, ‘I have the same rights’ as anybody.”

Her mother met Parks when she began making clothes for Durr and her siblings. The two women hated segregation, but were initially afraid to speak out against it. They confided in each other.

“My mother and Rosa Parks became best friends,” she said.

Parks’ arrest set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott by blacks, who decided they did not want to give their money to people who treated them badly,” Durr said. Her father, a lawyer, did the legal work for the boycott.

It caught on.

Many white women supported the boycott by providing rides. “Not because they believed in integration, but because they didn’t want to do their own housework,” Durr said.

The boycott was followed by marches, church services, lectures and demonstrations. “They started the Montgomery Improvement Association and made Martin Luther King the leader,” she said.

Durr recalled a time she was beaten by Ku Klux Klan members; police turned their backs when she asked for help, she said.

 She shared details about segregation most have only read about.

“When I was a child I could not eat at a table with a black person,” she said. “I could not drink at the same fountain as a black person. The park I used to go to would not allow black people. Black people were treated in the most terrible way imaginable.”

If blacks said something a white person didn’t like, they were targeted by the KKK. “It was very frightening.”

People were beaten. Homes were bombed.

Students were invited to ask Durr questions. One wanted to hear how her family reacted when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed.

Durr recalled that she was “heartbroken and shocked.”

Another student asked if she was the only one at her school who opposed segregation.

“I was the only one who spoke up,” Durr said. “You didn’t do it.” The first group to speak up and say, ”This is wrong,” usually has the toughest time, she said.

She said that even though the civil rights movement happened more than 50 years ago, it still offers lessons.

She encouraged students to recognize that they are products of their families and community, where their attitudes and ideas are formed. Some of those beliefs will work, but they should question some attitudes.

She encouraged students to work against name-calling, bullying and stereotyping. That can lead to casting groups “out of the human race, and you’re doing something to yourself in that process that is not good,” she said.

Durr told students to respect each other. To get an education. To always be nonviolent, and to remember that everyone has more in common than not.

“Keep talking to each other,” she said. “Keep learning about each other.”

 [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.