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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Finding sponsors for the poll tax bills

Durr explains how she learned some important political lessons. First, President Roosevelt removes his support from the poll tax act because of pressure from the southern senators whose votes he needs on pending legislation. Next, Vito Marcantonio out-maneuvers Durr and her allies, but when they agree to support his version of their bill, he proves to be a friendly and forgiving politician.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. 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

So, Sara D'Avila and I went over to see Mrs. Roosevelt. This must have been the beginning of '40, sometime. Mrs. Roosevelt was still going great guns on the anti-poll tax bill. It was '41. . . .
SUE THRASHER:
Had you been to the conference in Nashville in the meantime?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, yes. That was in '40, wasn't it?
SUE THRASHER:
Now, had you met Jim Dombrowski by that time?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, yes. I had gone to Highlander Folk School a lot by then and I was devoted to Jim and I was just crazy about him. He stayed with us a great deal.
SUE THRASHER:
What I am trying to get at is what was going on in the Southern Conference outside of the poll tax fight?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
I really don't know. I must have had a very single track mind. I thought that the Southern Conference existed for the poll tax and didn't have much of an impression of other things. I had a very single track mind because I really felt that unless people got the right to vote in the South, nothing would ever get anywhere. This oligarchy was just bleeding them to death and would continue to do so. So, in any case, Sara and I went to see Mrs. Roosevelt to discuss our plans for the coming session. By this time, Marcantonio had come into the picture. Oh, that was a funny thing. We had a meeting of the committee and all these people on it, the labor people, said that we ought to get somebody, some person that was sort of conservative because we had been red baited so much, you know. So, there was a. . . this was the labor people advising us. They said that there was a man from New York named Baldwin, Joseph Baldwin who had just been elected from the silk stocking district of New York and he had said that he would introduce the anti poll tax bill. Of course by this time, you see, Lewis had broken with Roosevelt, you understand that. He broke with him after the '36 election and he was supporting Wilkie in '40. So, we had a vote in committee and they said that since we had become so controversial and were red baited so badly, we thought that we had better get a man like Baldwin who was a Republican and he was a very elegant sort of a gentleman who wore a derby hat and carried a rolled up umbrella. So, we went to see him and he said that he would introduce the bill and he would be delighted and he was very charming, very upper class and a very nice man. Certainly, nobody could ever accuse him of being a Communist. So, that was all set. We were going to support Mr. Baldwin's bill. Well, Marcantonio had introduced a bill. I never laid eyes on him. At that time, you see, he ran on the Democratic ticket, the Republican ticket and the American Labor Party ticket. He ran on three tickets and got elected on all three. (interruption as reel is changed)
JACQUELYN HALL:
You were talking about your setback.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, yes. Well, we went to see Mrs. Roosevelt and she was perfectly lovely. She had us out for tea on the South Portico, you know, overlooking the Washington Monument and she couldn't have been more gracious and more sweet and kind than she was. So, she discussed what we should do and what she could do to help us and all. So, she said, "You know, before I do this, I think that I had better speak to Franklin and see what his ideas are." So, we had tea, you know and the White House butler came out and I will tell you, being a southern liberal in those days in Washington could be very pleasant. They used to say in the Oxford Democrat that if you were asinner and you got gorier and gorier with your sins, you ended up in the Waldorf Astoria, but if you were a southern liberal, you got into the White House. She had all these people staying there with her, you know, like Tex Dobbs and all these young southerners. They would sleep in the White House. She was just wonderful to the southerners, she was just tremendous. So, she stayed away about fifteen minutes and she came back and looked very upset, and that was before she took voice lessons, so when she got upset, her voice went very high and almost squaked and she said that as far as Franklin was concerned, he had said that he wasn't going to touch the poll tax with a ten foot pole and she couldn't have any open part in it either. Because he had changed from Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win The War.
CLIFFORD DURR:
Well, this was even before we got into the war. He was trying to. . . you see, he had gotten his rebuff with his quarrantine speech in 1937, that we had to quarrantine the aggressor. The isolationist sentiment was so strong that he had to back off on it, but he knew that we were going to be in conflict with Hitler. So, he went very slowly and the southerners were not isolationists.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
They were ready to support him, you see.
CLIFFORD DURR:
The old League of Nations, the Wilson idea, still prevailed in the South. So, Roosevelt was very much concerned not to offend the southern senators, because he needed them on his foreign policy so badly that he decided that he couldn't offend them on such issues as the poll tax.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
You see, Senator George, who he had gone down to Georgia to try to defeat, was one of his great supports in getting ready for the war. So many of the southern Senators and Congressmen supported him in his war efforts, while the isolationist Republicans in the Middle West, even the Democratic isolationists didn't. And of course, you know that Burton Wheeler fought him bitterly on the war and of course, John L. Lewis did too. So, Mrs. Roosevelt came back and she was upset and said that he had said that and whatever we did from now on, we would just have to do it on our own. Which we actually did, because the war broke out in '42, didn't it?
CLIFFORD DURR:
No, '41. December of '41.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
December of '41, o.k. Well, I went to see Mrs. Roosevelt again and she and I together cooked up an idea that we would get a federal bill through to remove the poll tax from the soldiers. That's a fact. She got Tom Corcoran and Ed Pritchor over again and Ben Cohen, all the big shots in the White House, you know. William Hastie, he was the dean of the Howard Law School there and Dr. Nabrit who was a professor at the Howard Law School. Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt just rattled all the big guns and we did have a bill drawn up to abolish the poll tax for people in the armed forces, for federal elections only, you see. And it did get passed and the southerners fought it tooth and toenail. Julie Rankin of Mass. Said that this was the nose of the camel under the tent, you know, just a terrible fight, but it did pass. It was real hard, you know, not to remove the poll tax from a guy that was going to be in the Army and sent abroad. So, we did get it removed from the soldiers in federal elections. That was the first victory that we won.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was the name of that bill and who sponsored it? Do you remember?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
I think that it was the Soldiers Voting Act. But anyway, we kept on fighting and Marcantonio, as I was telling you, we went to see him, I had never seen him before, and we told him that we had met and decided to back Congressman Baldwin's bill and would he mind withdrawing his bill? And then, George Bender had a bill, too. He was the Congressman at large from Ohio, he was one of laft's lieutentants, he was a Republican. Bender said that he would withdraw his bill if we would all concentrate on Baldwin's bill. Well, we walked in the office and Marcantonio had a secretary named Miss Johnson who was a very austere New England old maid type, you know. She looked like she had been carved out of granite, but she was a very nice woman, too. So, she introduced us and I had taken along this lady who had helped us on the anti-poll tax fight, named Miss Eleanor Bontecu. She was a great sort of an intellectual who had been dean at Bryn Mawr for awhile and she was working with us. She finally got into the civil rights division of the Justice Department. We sat down and we said in a very nice ladylike way, "Congressman Marcantonio, we have come to see you because the board of the national committee to abolish the poll tax has decided to back Congressman Baldwin's bill and we wondered if you would be good enough to withdraw your bill so that we could all concentrate on Congressman Baldwin's bill and we are backing his bill because he is a Republican and we are trying to get more conservative support." Oh, my Lord, Vesuvius errupted! Whew! He sprang up and you never heard such a tirade in your life. "I withdraw my bill and let that Park Avenue fancypants, striped pants, bowler hatted, so and so. . . ." Oh, he just raved on and on. It just blew us out of the office. I have never heard such an explosion in my life. He would not withdraw his bill, his bill was going to be the bill that got through and was going to be the bill that the house backed and as far as we were concerned, we could just go and drown ourselves. He didn't give a damn whether we supported him or not. Oh, he was mad and just furious! Well, we went back and had a meeting of the committee and reported what he had said. You see, he was elected on the American Labor Party ticket, the Democratic ticket and the Republican ticket. As a matter of fact, what he did was, he got the Republican leadership to back his bill, he got the Democratic leadership to back his bill, and of course, he was the only American Labor party person in the country, in the Congress, so he got the American Labor party to back it. He got Baldwin to withdraw his bill. Well, we were faced with this problem that we either supported his bill or we didn't have a bill. So, we had to either eat crow or get out of business. Oh! We had to see him again, you know. He had won, you see and so, he was very nice to us this time. Any help that we could give him, he would be very glad to have, he was very pleasant, very nice. He had licked us good, too. We had to really eat humble pie, I am telling you. From then on, we worked together very closely and he couldn't have been nicer or more helpful than he was. His wife and I got to be great friends as well as he. He married . . . he had a secretary who was an austere New England lady, and he married a New England blue blood who was about two feel taller than he was and had done social work and she had met him up in Harlem. She was a charming woman, beautiful and a wonderful person and I used to visit them real often up in New York. He and I got to be devoted friends and he and Cliff got to be devoted friends.