By Charles Correll III
Concluding his speech as valedictorian of the Virginia Military Institute’s Class of 1961, Jonathan Daniels wished his fellow classmates a purposeful life, decency, nobility, and the foresight to see new worlds.
“These will come,” he said, “with the maturity which it is now our job to acquire on far-flung fields.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis received the Jonathan Daniels Award in Cameron Hall at VMI. Fifty years ago last weekend, Lewis was one of the leaders of the black protest marchers beaten and tear gassed in Selma, Ala., on “Bloody Sunday.”
“Beautiful spirit, beautiful soul”
Jonathan Daniels was among the thousands who joined Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. two weeks later in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Inspired by that march and the call from King, Daniels returned to Alabama five months after that, and met his end.
Referring to Daniels as a “beautiful spirit, a beautiful soul,” Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, commended Daniels for taking up King’s call, and for his sacrifice.
“The blood of Jonathan Daniels… helped to bring us to where we are today,” he said.
VMI is proud to have Daniels as a model of its “citizen-solider” ideal. Along with giving the Daniels Award every four years starting in 2001, when it went to former President Jimmy Carter, the institute has named a courtyard between barracks for Daniels.
On Wednesday, after the award ceremony, VMI showed a documentary film on Daniels, “Here I Am, Send Me”; held a ceremonial wreath-laying in the Daniels courtyard, and staged the play “Jonathan Myrick Daniels: The Martyr of Lowndes County.”
Col. Stewart MacInnis, VMI’s director of communications, says the Daniels Award fits well with VMI’s mission. A citizen-soldier “recognizes the need to serve your fellow citizens and take action,” he said. “Daniels helps expand the understanding of our mission towards service.”
“Outside agitator” to VMI hero
But it took a while to expand that understanding so that Daniels could join such honored VMI heroes as Stonewall Jackson, the New Market Cadets and Gen. George C. Marshall. Daniels had no military role, and at the time of his killing, was considered by much of the white South to be an “outside agitator” – the title of a Daniels biography.
Rep. Lewis saw the need for a bit of outside agitation. He said Daniels “found a way to get in the way,” and got into “good trouble, necessary trouble,” all of which furthered the cause of civil rights and voter registration. Others whom Rep. Lewis mentioned as getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” were Dr. King, Rosa Parks and himself.
VMI was an all-white tradition-bound institution for nearly 130 years before it accepted its first black cadets in 1968. Four years later, African-American cadets organized a club to give themselves a voice on campus, and to create a strong support network for one another.
They named it the Promaji Club. In 1992, the club established a Jonathan Daniels Award to honor individuals who had dedicated themselves to humanitarian work in their lives and careers.
The club, which gave VMI the exclusive rights to the name of the award in 1997, continues to play an active role in planning and participating in the ceremony.
Cadet Fredrick Walker, an African-American first classman from Blacksburg and president of the Promaji Club, says Daniels provides the foundation on which VMI can better understand how the institute’s mission, history and diversity intertwine. Daniels’ legacy challenges what Walker calls the “internalized lie” — that VMI’s heritage is set in stone.
A willingness to change
VMI has shown that it is willing to change, even in small ways, to better reflect its heritage. The physical award that VMI gave recipients was, until this year, a replica of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” the famous statue memorializing the VMI cadets who fought for the Confederacy in the bloody Battle of New Market.
But because it would have been inappropriate to give Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, a statue that embodied the “Lost Cause” narrative, VMI decided to change the award to something with Daniels’s image on it.
Walker says that, although it may seem minute to some, the change shows the Institute is open to change.
“It makes me proud to see that the administration took steps to change the award,” he says. “It shows that VMI is willing to take steps in the right direction.”
He hopes that embracing Daniels will help spark a larger conversation about diversity in the corps of cadets.
Walker, who played King in VMI’s production of “Jonathan Myrick Daniels: The Martyr of Lowndes County,” emphasizes the importance of reaching out to the corps as a whole. He says Promaji tries to raise the corps’ awareness of the contributions of minority groups to VMI’s heritage, and to press that agenda through a strategy of “presence, conversation, relationship and legitimacy.”
“This is not just Black history,” he says. “It’s American history.”
He says Daniels provides a strong example of honor and sacrifice beyond military action. Daniels “graduated and became a quality citizen more than a quality soldier.”
Daniels shows that “one person can make a difference,” Walker said.