West Point's Virginius Bray Thornton III became civil rights leader

WEST POINT — It was the late 1940's in West Point, and "separate but equal" attitudes prevailed.

Virginius Bray Thornton III would soon graduate as valedictorian of Beverly Allen, the black high school in West Point. One day, he walked into the white high school, asking to see the principal.

Thornton knew the schools were not equal. He knew the resources Beverly Allen needed, but didn't have. He made sure the principal knew it too.

"Already, before he was out of high school, he was representing. He was leading," said Thornton's sister Lucy Thornton Edwards, 76, of West Point. "He wanted to make sure that things were better for us."

Thornton, a leader in the civil rights movement, died Sept. 3 at Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester. He was 81.

While pursuing graduate studies at Virginia State College, Thornton boldly led the sit-in movement in Petersburg in 1960. During that time, he became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an initiative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thornton's efforts, his drive, began early in his life.

Thornton's mother and grandfather ran Bray's Seafood, a desegregated restaurant in West Point.

But at age six, he was told he couldn't buy a coke from the drugstore.

At 12, a librarian told him he couldn't check out Machiavelli's "The Prince," even though Thornton had already delved into Plato at that age, his sister said.

He possessed "a real yearning for education, and also for not being mistreated," Edwards said.

Edwards said this stemmed from an active, caring black community in West Point and from parents who pushed for education.

Soon after Thornton's graduation, the school board shut down Beverly Allen, telling black students they'd have to attend school in a different county.

Parents and students refused, protesting. Thornton's mother was one of eight parents arrested.

Thornton, and another graduate of Beverly Allen, helped lead in the fight in this case. They even taught the affected students at a makeshift school for a time.

Thornton served stateside for a few years in the military during the Korean War, before completing undergraduate studies at Virginia Union University, in Richmond.

He began graduate studies at University of Virginia — Edwards said he was the first black student to do so — but completed his master's at Virginia State College, while involved in the Petersburg sit-ins.

In its Sept. 19, 1960 issue, LIFE magazine described the youngsters involved in the Petersburg sit-ins: "They are educated, filled with a fierce idealism, chafing impatience and bitterness against the remaining shackles."

Thornton was photographed, for that same issue, as friends blew smoke in his face to practice keeping cool when provoked during protests.

In 1960, Thornton and other university students from the South met, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to form SNCC, which would play a significant role in the nonviolent civil rights movement.

Thornton began his teaching career at high schools in Charles City and Portsmouth.

He worked toward a doctorate degree at Penn State and taught at a several colleges, including Virginia Commonwealth University and Hampton University.

"Teaching was his passion," Edwards said, and it merged with his passion for civil rights. He taught American history, black studies and women's rights.

Thornton spent the last 30 years of his life teaching at MassBay Community College, in Wellesley, Mass., from where he retired last year.

The Southern Patriot, a monthly newspaper published by the Southern Conference Educational Fund, published a profile of Thornton in February, 1961.

"He is mild in manner and speech, but absolutely determined in struggle," the article stated. "He is possessed of an inability to compromise with second class citizenship but is equally unable to hate those who oppose him."

Thornton's was a life characterized by aggression, but never violence. By voice, and never silence.

"He was an effective person in organizing and getting people to see the significance and the importance of trying to stand up for their rights," Edwards said. "He stood up all of his life."

Thornton is survived by Edwards and three other sisters: Mary King, 83, Alice Edwards, 82 and Frances Thornton, 74.

Daily Press reporter Ryan Murphy contributed to this story.

Bridges can be reached at 757-345-2342.

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