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Posted January 19, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Pastor looks back on Civil Rights movement, ahead to Obama presidency

Rev. James M. Kilby
The Rev. James M. Kilby, 66, of Front Royal, holds a pair of photos -- one of Kilby and his co-workers posing with President Johnson from when Kilby was a messenger in the White House, and an enlarged photo of President-elect Obama and his wife that Kilby received during Obama's campaign. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kilby
Kilby holds a framed copy of The Washington Post's coverage of President Nixon's inauguration. As a National Guard member, Kilby served as parade security. He is in the bottom photo of the page. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kilby reflects
Kilby reflects on his struggles as a young black man and the significance of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- The Rev. James M. Kilby pulls out memento after memento as he tells a series of stories about his life.

From a large envelope he slides out blown-up black and white photos from Time magazine's coverage of his first day at the old Warren County High School on Luray Avenue. It was Feb. 18, 1959 -- the day he and about 20 other black students were the first to integrate there.

He takes out a writing pen from its original box. It's a replica of the one President Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Kilby's supervisor at the White House, where he was employed by the CIA as a messenger at the time, presented the pens to Kilby and several of his black co-workers. A photo of all of them, lined up with the president, is framed on Kilby's wall.

In another frame, a yellowed newspaper page contains three pictures from the inauguration of President Nixon in 1969. Kilby points himself out among a cluster of National Guardsmen marching along the parade route.

And he takes his newest keepsake down from the wall. It's an enlarged copy of a thank-you card he got when he donated to a presidential campaign for the first time, with Barack Obama's signature at the bottom.

As a lifelong firsthand witness to the Civil Rights movement, that Obama will be the first black to serve in the country's highest office has perhaps extra meaning for Kilby.

"I believe in a supreme being and that he's behind all this," Kilby says. "I think he's the right man for the job, and at the right time, too."

For one thing, Obama's inauguration Tuesday comes less than a month away from the 50th anniversary of the day Kilby and his classmates walked up the hill to the Luray Avenue school for the first time, trying to stay focused as they passed a group of white protesters.

It all started with Kilby's father.

James W. Kilby grew up in Rappahannock County, where his father was a servant on a farm -- or as the younger Kilby explains it, was "a modern day slave."

"I think my father really observed the way his parents were treated," Kilby says, "... got this deep-seeded hatred for the way his parents were treated."

Another thing that hurt James W. Kilby deeply, his son explains, was that as a black janitor at the American Viscose plant, he was forbidden from eating in the cafeteria with the other employees. He thought as a human being he should have all the same privileges as white people, Kilby says.

"I mean, he was really ahead of his time, I think."

James W. Kilby, a janitor and farmer who himself didn't make it beyond elementary school, would eventually be driven to action.

* * *

For the younger Kilby, now 66, and his siblings, going to school up until seventh grade meant going to the "colored" elementary school. After that, if you wanted to continue your education, it meant not only leaving Front Royal, but leaving the county -- Warren County High School was exclusively available to white children.

The only other option offered by the School Board, Kilby says, was to bus older black students to the Manassas Industrial School, another "colored" school, where students were required to board through the week.

Being the oldest child in the family, Kilby went there first, he says.

"I guess I was the guinea pig," he says, laughing.

It was 1955, and that summer 14-year-old black Emmett Till had been brutally murdered in Mississippi.

Not only did it seem unfair to have to go away for school, according to Kilby, now it seemed dangerous.

"One reason I knew was my father kept telling about how unfair it was," Kilby says. "My father had a lot of common sense, a lot of wisdom."

During that year, Kilby's father fought for and won bus trips so his son and the others could at least come home to visit every other week.

Kilby made it through, but not without missing the three meals a day of farm-grown food he was used to at home, and not without catching a severe cold and dropping significant weight, he says.

The following year, Kilby's brother John was old enough for secondary school, too.

"That's when he decided he wasn't going to put his second son through this," Kilby says.

Again, his father fought the School Board and won. A bus was put on the roads to take his children and other blacks to school in Berryville each day.

"My father always looked out for his children. He always tried to make the system work for us," he said.

The following year, Kilby's sister Betty was old enough to join them on the trek to Berryville.

"I think that's when my father decided to really stand up," Kilby says.

* * *

In his self-published book, "The Forever Fight," the younger Kilby says, "My father was my one real role model."

In September 1958, with backing from the NAACP, James W. Kilby filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of his children and others.

During the legal battle that ensued, Virginia laws closed Warren County High School to avoid integration. White students began attending private schools instead.

The Kilby siblings pursued yet another option in the meantime, moving in with a pastor and his family and attending the already-integrated Eastern High School in Washington.

When the case was over and Kilby, his brother and his sister, and their fellow classmates, made their way past the mob of protesters and inside Warren County High School for the first time, there was no one else there but their new teachers.

The following year, some white students returned and no new black students enrolled, according to Kilby's book, and Kilby found out that because he'd split his time between a school in Washington and at Warren County, his credits would not be counted and he would have to repeat the year.

"It took me four schools to get my high school diploma," Kilby says.

Times weren't good for any of the Kilbys.

"It was hell, really," Kilby says of his Warren County High School days.

"To be honest with you, we had to always protect our home," Kilby says. "We weren't even comfortable in our own home."

According to Kilby, their brick house at the edge of Front Royal was shot at, and some of the family's milk cows, a source of income for the Kilbys, were poisoned.

His father wouldn't go out without bringing his sons along as a kind of protection.

Between his own book, and a book his sister wrote, and one that she helped their father write, not to mention a documentary and a number of TV and newspaper interviews, Kilby is still today discovering facets of the case.

"I can tell you the whole story hasn't been told," he says.

* * *

Despite the hardships, Kilby and classmate Frank Grier were the first black students to graduate from Warren County High School on June 8, 1961.

Two days later, both graduates faced criminal charges for a scuffle near Kilby's home involving himself and a couple of white boys. Grier wasn't even there and the charges against him were dropped, but Kilby was convicted within days, according to Northern Virginia Daily archives.

Kilby says it was a "kangaroo" court.

After that, he left town for Washington.

An admirer of Martin Luther King Jr., Kilby was there for the march on Washington in 1963, and for King's "I Have a Dream" speech, according to his book.

"I consider [King] as a modern-day prophet," Kilby says.

And by the day of the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Kilby was working as a messenger at the White House, a job he would have for nine years. In that role, Kilby met and shook hands with two presidents, Johnson and Nixon.

Kilby also served in the D.C. National Guard during those years. When King was assassinated in 1968, Kilby and other members of the National Guard were called to the streets of Washington during the riots that followed. And then later, he marched with President Nixon's inaugural parade.

King's death signaled the end of Kilby's aspiration to become a Civil Rights leader, he says, but in later years Kilby would follow in his father's footsteps anyway.

He promoted equality by designing the "Treat Every American Right" promotion after the Rodney King trial. He wrote his book, and he was active with the NAACP.

When his father had a stroke, he returned to Front Royal to care for him.

The elder Kilby died in 2003.

His son has been fighting to have a school named after him not only for his vital role in integration, but for the numerous other ways he was involved in the community.

"He worked hard because he knew that education was key," Kilby says of his father, "and that's what Barack has -- a great education."

"I think he would be thrilled to know than an African-American had become president of the United States of America."

* * *

"You know, just observing politics and how blacks have began to run for the highest office of the nation ... you know I could see things changing then," Kilby says, and every time a black man ran for president, he was hopeful.

In Obama, Kilby says, he saw a semblance of King -- but not just because he is black.

"The more I listened to him, the more I saw him, I realized he was a brilliant man. I kinda believed that he was gonna make it. Here you find a man that is brilliant, and that will bring to this nation a point of opportunity and sunshine."

His belief in Obama led him to make his first ever campaign contribution, and in return he received that card he enlarged and hung on his wall.

Kilby says there is still work to be done in the fight against racism, but the inauguration of Obama as president on Tuesday is a proud moment.

"It's a time to start over," Kilby says. "You know I might try at the last minute [to go to the inauguration]. I am hoping for the day that I will be able to shake the third president's hand -- Barack Obama."

Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com


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