‘What would Jonathan do?’
Iam a 1961 graduate of Virginia Military Institute (VMI). As president of my class, I knew all my Brother Rats personally, including Jonathan Daniels, our class valedictorian.
Four years after graduation on Aug. 20, 1965, while in Alabama as part of the civil rights struggle, he stepped in front of a shotgun blast fired by a white store owner intended for 17-year-old Ruby Sales, a Black teenager, who dared to enter his premises. Jonathan died instantly.
“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The VMI Board of Visitors voted in 1997 to establish the Jonathan M. Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award. The award emphasizes the virtue of humanitarian public service and recognizes individuals who have made significant sacrifices to protect or improve the lives of others. The inaugural presentation was made to President Jimmy Carter in 2001; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young received the second award. And in 2015, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was the recipient.
In further tribute to Jonathan’s sacrifice and courage, one of four named archways into VMI Barracks is dedicated to him, as is a memorial courtyard. Dr. King’s words are inscribed on Jonathan’s statue.
Some will say that both should have happened much sooner, and the fact that it took so long reflects VMI’s immersion in Confederate idolatry. Some say more should have been done sooner, e.g., the removal of Stonewall Jackson’s statue that the Board of Visitors unanimously voted to remove only recently. Perhaps. But it is happening now.
For VMI and the country, George Floyd’s death raised an overdue awareness of the painful impact of such monuments. Transformational change often takes tumultuous events to focus attention in ways not happening before.
Many of us have been slow to separate our affection for the school we love as it was when we were there, and open our minds and hearts to what Black cadets and others suffer when daily confronting the reminders of that horrible and indefensible time in our history. Like much of the country, we were too slow to embrace our better angels.
With a couple of media exceptions, Jonathan Daniels’ sacrifice and VMI’s embrace of it — immensely important to VMI alumni— have been overlooked. VMI’s recognition of my Brother Rat’s heroism, courage and commitment to racial justice and equality should now be part of the evaluative mix in trying to understand VMI, and more importantly, judging the institute.
No caring person can condone any of the despicable acts that have been disclosed in the articles that triggered the calls for an independent investigation to determine the actual facts of life for Black cadets at the institute. As the Board of Visitors said, it is welcomed.
VMI placing Stonewall Jackson in such prominence or celebrating the valor of those cadets who courageously faced death at New Market do not in the minds of most alumni reflect systemic racism.
Rather, these men and events are linked to VMI by the common bond of sacrifice and service that ties VMI graduates together over almost two centuries. Those are hard to let go. In hindsight we, like too many Americans, failed to recognize the impact of our decisions on our fellow Americans for whom that courage was displayed for the wrong reasons.
Well before the events that have led to the current focus, VMI embraced the courage of an extraordinary man and placed him astride VMI’s history by honoring his sacrifice in the cause of racial justice. So, the current narrative tainting VMI does not stand alone. Jonathan Daniels is part of our heritage too. In his valedictory address, he wished for us the “joy of a purposeful life.” Though his was short, he knew that joy.
VMI will come through these times and this investigation; I believe that while VMI isn’t perfect, it is an institution that overwhelmingly treats its cadets with honor and dignity in the context of the grueling regimen each signs up for.
VMI is part of a nation that slowly and painfully has evolved toward a place where racism will be understood as more than overt displays of prejudice, but includes the insensitivity to how our racial history is a burden permeating the lives of Black Americans.
Hopefully, as events unfold, those who judge VMI will remember Jonathan Daniels is a vital part of our heritage, and VMI embraced him as it has no other graduate except Gen. George Marshall.
For its part the institute must recognize that removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson is a necessary first step toward creating an environment where Black cadets face only the same challenges every VMI cadet faces. Those are hard enough. Perhaps at least one question VMI alumni should ask ourselves as we shape VMI’s future is “What would Jonathan do?”