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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Subpoena of Aubrey West and Virginia Foster Durr

Durr discusses the subpoenas of his wife, Virginia Foster Durr, and their friend, Aubrey West, for their work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Durr primarily focuses on how Virginia negotiated with Lyndon Baines Johnson (then, a Senator) and Congressman George Bender in ensuring the best possible outcome. In addition, Durr describes their interactions with James Eastland, who was on the investigation committee, and Paul Crouch, who was the "informer."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clifford Durr, December 29, 1974. Interview B-0017. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, one day, Aubrey came around, one Saturday morning and he had a subpoena from the internal security sub-committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Eisenhower was still president and he was to appear in New Orleans to tell all he knew about subversive activities of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Well, Virginia had been very active in that when it first started. Part of it sloughed off for tax purposes and became the Southern Conference Educational Fund and Aubrey became president of it. It was about the only organization in the South that was for integration. So, Aubrey had this subpoena for New Orleans and almost instinctively I got to work on the thing and we began to discuss strategy and how to handle h himself and Virginia was taking calls, acting as my secretary then. It's a bad idea to have a man's wife working for him, but I needed a secretary and trieda lot of others but she was the only one that could spell, so I was stuck with her. [Laughter] Well, this was a rather amusing story. I had been trying to catch up and had been under terrific strain and I was under treatment for a heart condition at the time, not a heart attack but a coronary insufficiency, they called it, angina. So, when we left home Saturday afternoon, Virginia said, "Cliff, I know how you feel about all this and Aubrey, but you just can't go down there with your heart condition." I said, "Nobody else in Montgomery will go with him and I know the ropes, so let's stick by Aubrey." Well, by the time I got home, she had gotten in touch with the doctor and he had me on the phone and said, "You just can't go down there." So, I argued with him some, but on Monday morning, the problem was solved because when we went to work that morning, the marshal was waiting with a subpoena for Virginia. So, I called the doctor and said, "Listen hear doctor, you may as well be sensible about this. You know that it is going to be a strain on me sitting up here in Montgomery with Virginia down there going through all that business and I want to go down with her." Well, he could see that and there were a number of other people subpoenaed, Myles Horton and Jim Dombrowski and quite a number of others. Virginia got busy on the phone meanwhile and started playing politics. First she called Lyndon Johnson. The sub-committee consisted of McClellan of Arkansas, who had some prestige, then Jenner, the Republican, who was chairman and Jim Eastland. That was to be the committee. Well, Virginia decided that we could handle Jim Eastland all right, but McClellan and Jenner might be a little tough, so she gets busy on the phone and called Lyndon. He was on the floor and finally Virginia called their home and gets Byrd and she said, "Well, Lyndon has gone to bed." Virginia says, "Get him up," and she proceeds to tell Byrd what has happened, that we have all been subpoened down there, including Aubrey. Well, Byrd in her sweet way said, "I know you and Aubrey are as fine Americans as there ever were and I'll just get Lyndon up." She got him up and Lyndon got on the phone, "Honey, what you calling me about?" Virginia said, "I'm calling you because I'm as sore as hell." She told him about her and Aubrey being subpoened down there. Well, he said, "I didn't know a thing about it." "Do you mean that you are the majority leader there and you don't know what is going on in the United States Senate." "Well, what in the hell should I do?" She said, "You just see to it that no other Democrat comes down with Eastland." "Well, I'll see what I can do." Then, there was a guy from Ohio, George Bender. He was a colorful character, pretty much of a and he was later Senator. I think that at thetime, he had been elected Congressman at large. They had had some reapportionment. But George had been for this abolition of the poll tax because of the Negro votes in a few cities of Ohio and it was good politics for him to be for it. So, one Sunday afternoon, Virginia gets on the phone and locates him at Chagrin Falls, Ohio. George was a little to the right of Bob Taft politically, but the poll tax was a different issue for him. So, George says, "Well, Virginia, you must love me as much as ever, calling me up long distance to talk to me." Virginia said, "Well, George, I do love you just as much as I ever did, but I didn't call you up to tell you how much I loved you." She proceeded to tell him about this hearing. "Well," he said, "you've got nothing to worry about. You haven't done anything wrong. Just answer the questions and you'll be all right. You haven't done anything wrong." Virginia said, "That's just it. You never do know what they might ask you and if they ask about this poll tax fight, you know that we used your office and we used your memeograph machine and you sent out a lot of the stuff over your name. If they ask me this question, I've got to answer them." "Oh, isn't there some constitutional amendment that you can invoke?" [Laughter] Virginia said, "I'm not going to invoke the Fifth Amendment and have people think that I have something to hide." "Well, what can I do for you, honey?" She said, "You see to it that no Republican comes down with Jim Eastland." The long and short of it was that we got down there and Jim Eastland was by himself. [Laughter] Well, that's a long story. The main witness was a guy named Paul Crouch and he was an informer and obviously a psychopath and he admitted that he didn't know Aubrey or Virginia. You see, I wasn't subpoenaed, I was just down there as the laywer for them. He had met Aubrey once after he had met a speech and had been introduced to him as "Comrad Williams." [Laughter] Then Virginia, well, she was in with the White House and kin to Justice Black, and he was the mastermind who really started the Southern Conference for Human Welfare …well, the first day, I told them that they were going to be held in contempt and wind up in jail and they said that they were not going to invoke the Fifth Amendment, but they said that they would answer any questions about themselves, but they weren't going to give them names. That's what they wanted, to get names of other people. I told them that the Fifth Amendment was to protectyou and if you don't answer the other questions, you can be held in contempt and go to jail. The first day, the two characters were on who none of us knew before. One of them was a contractor who had been very successful and had a Polish name. I think that his parents had come to this country when he was eighteen months old and the other was born in Brooklyn andwas a laywer. He had practiced law in New York for awhile and then he had come to Miami. Well, they went after them. Whether they had ever been Communists, I don't know, it turned out that what happened, there had been some Jewish synagogues bombed down in Miami and Jim Dombrowski, who was secretary of the Southern Conference, had gone down to see if he could help organize some protest and they had been in this local group. He had pretty well forgotten about that. Well, anyway, Crouch began to testify. One of them was all prepared, he was going to meet the Russian navy when it launched its landing craft on Miami Beach and all this. Well, you couldn't believe the treatment that these guys got. They were just reated….they protested and finally the marshals were all ordered to drag them out of the room. I woke up in the middle of the night to the banging away of a typewriter and there was Virginia. I said, "What in the hell are you doing?" She said, "I'm getting up a statement." I said, "Everybody agrees what you are going to do, you're going to end up in jail because you are going to be held in contempt." She said, "From what I have seen today, I'm not going to have anything to do with this outfit at all." Well, she started off in this statement by saying that she had the highest respect for the investigative role of Congress and from what she had seen, this was no legitimate exercise of Congressional powers and this was nothing but a kangaroo court and she refused to be any part of it. She ended by saying, "I stand in utter and complete contempt of this committee." [Laughter] When they got her on the stand the next day, she just refused to answer any questions. She admitted that she was my wife and wasn't a Communist and never had been, but the rest of the time, she just stood moot. Well, there is another aspect of the story, John Cone from Montgomery volunteered to go down there as a lawyer, he is George Wallace's speech writer. That's another story. I'll digress and come back to that. [Laughter] She just refused to answer any questions at all. She wouldn't reply. It just drove them frantic.