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Rep. John Lewis to Receive Jonathan Daniels Award

Rep. John Lewis to Receive Jonathan Daniels Award

Virginia Military Institute has announced that U.S. Rep. John Lewis is the 2015 recipient of the Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award. VMI will live stream the event on March 11.

The award is presented by the VMI Board of Visitors in honor of Daniels, a native of Keene, N.H. Daniels was valedictorian of the VMI Class of 1961 and as a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., was killed while saving the life of African-American teenager Ruby Sales during the violent struggle for civil rights in Haynesville, Ala., in 1965. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Daniels’ death.

The Daniels award is bestowed upon individuals who have made great personal sacrifices to protect or improve the lives of others.

Like Daniels, Lewis was fully immersed in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. The son of sharecroppers from rural Alabama, Lewis first became involved in the civil rights movement by organizing sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., where he was a student at Fisk University. He then joined the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at bus terminals across the South. Later, he served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized student activism in the civil rights movement.

In 1965, Lewis was a leader of the “Bloody Sunday” march organized to call attention to the need for full enfranchisement of African-Americans in Alabama. …

From the VMI archives:

Jonathan M. Daniels, a native of Keene, New Hampshire, was valedictorian of the VMI Class of 1961. He was awarded the prestigious Danforth Fellowship for post-graduate study and enrolled at Harvard University to continue his study of English literature. Daniels soon realized that he was called to the ministry. While a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts he responded to the pleas of Dr. Martin Luther King for clergy to become more actively involved in the Civil Rights movement, and traveled to Alabama to assist with voter registration efforts in the South.

In August 1965 Daniels and 22 others were arrested for participating in a voter rights demonstration in Fort Deposit, Alabama, and transferred to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. Shortly after being released on August 20, Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest, and Daniels accompanied two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a Hayneville store to buy a soda. They were met on the steps by Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who was carrying a shotgun. Coleman aimed his gun at sixteen year old Ruby Sales; Daniels pushed her to the ground in order to protect her, saving her life. The shotgun blast killed Daniels instantly; Morrisroe was seriously wounded. When he heard of the tragedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”


Online Exhibit
Photo Album, Daniels in Alabama, 1965 

Valedictory Speech, 1961 [transcript and audio] and Yearbook page, 1961

From Daniels’ valedictory speech:

…. Within our ranks are record-breaking athletes, distinguished students, and prospective officers of acknowledged excellence – as well as some magnificent buffoons. Let us demand of ourselves the same distinction in the body politic, an industry, in the professions, and in the leadership of the nation.

My colleagues and friends, I wish you the joy of a purposeful life. I wish you new worlds and the vision to see them. I wish you the decency and the nobility of which you are capable. These will come, with the maturity which it is now our job to acquire on farflung fields. The only thing that we can do at this time – is to “greet the unseen with a cheer.” GOODBYE.


Valedictorian of the Class of 1961

Posted by John B. Chilton


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Chris Brothers MD '69

Always proud of cadet Daniels and agree heartily with choice of Rep. Lewis for the award.

June Butler

Excellent. What a fine finale to a valedictory speech by Jonathan Daniels. The award to Rep. John Lewis is appropriate and well-deserved.

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