When a Hayneville, Alabama, deputy leveled a shotgun at a 17-year-old black civil rights activist in 1965, Virginia Military Institute alumnus Jonathan Myrick Daniels didn’t have time to think.
“Daniels could not have anticipated Tom L. Coleman’s willingness to open fire on a teenage girl,” said retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smith, who addressed a crowd of more than 200 as the keynote speaker at the 22nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. banquet Saturday. “He had to act before the sheriff did, and the sheriff’s instincts were sharpened by a lifetime of racist practice.”
Before the deputy could fire on Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way. The Episcopal seminarian, who was valedictorian of VMI’s 1961 graduating class, was killed instantly.
Daniels’ contributions to the civil rights movement were posthumously recognized during Saturday’s banquet, which was held by the Roanoke chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Holiday Inn on Ordway Drive. The VMI graduate, who has since been named an Episcopal martyr, was awarded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Award by the group.
Perneller Chubb-Wilson, who formed the Roanoke SCLC chapter and serves as its president, told Smith that Daniels’ father, who is 94, would get a copy of the plaque honoring his son’s sacrifice. She pointed to Daniels’ defense of voting rights and his efforts to register more people to vote prior to his death.
“We have so many people still to this day, Lord have mercy, who won’t go out and register to vote,” Chubb-Wilson said. “A young, white man gave his life.”
Smith, who graduated from VMI in 1979 and now serves as the school’s dean of faculty and deputy superintendent of academics, delivered an impassioned speech comparing Daniels’ valedictorian address — which called for his classmates to acquire maturity, decency and nobility in “far-flung fields” — with the sacrifices Daniels made leading up to his death.
Smith noted that although many people initially answered King’s call for clergy members and students to join the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, Daniels was one of the few who chose to stay and continue working with civil rights leaders after the march was over.
“You’re not going to change a society over a weekend march,” Smith said. “As [Daniels] spoke about in his VMI address, it would require immersion.”
Other recipients of the Drum Major for Justice Award included Roanoke City Councilman Bill Bestpitch and Roanoke City Attorney Dan Callaghan.
Pamela Edwards, Katherine Elam, Robert L. Jeffrey Jr., Eva Miller, Francine McLaughlin, Andre Perry, Donna Williams and Amy Ziglar also received the award.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award was given to AARP, WFXR anchor Travell Eiland, WDBJ anchor Neesey Payne and Dorothy Owsley. Kameron Melton, who was given the Dr. Perneller Chubb-Wilson Award, was also recognized.
During the banquet, which the SCLC holds as part of its observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bestpitch and others referred to recent comments by civil rights legend and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who stated that he would not be attending the upcoming presidential inauguration.
Lewis, citing Russian interference in the 2016 elections, said he would not be attending the inauguration, and that he does not believe Donald Trump to be a “legitimate president.”
Trump responded by tweeting that Lewis, who has represented Atlanta since 1987, should spend more time helping the state’s capital, which Trump claimed is “in horrible shape,” “falling apart,” and “crime-infested.” Trump also claimed that Lewis is “all talk, talk, talk — no actions or results.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that John Lewis is not all talk and no action,” Bestpitch said. “Let our actions speak louder than our words.”
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea also referred to the upcoming presidential inauguration during the banquet and implored banquet attendees to keep defending King’s legacy.
“I understand the frustration some — not all of us — may have about what’s going to happen next week, but I would encourage all of us to keep moving,” Lea said. “No matter what you see or what happens in the next few days, if we do that, that’s all we can do.”