On a damp weekday evening in March, two shiny cars pulled into a KFC parking lot in this Shenandoah Valley town. From one stepped a diminutive man in a pinstripe suit, with neat, gray hair and thick glasses. From the other emerged a larger man in a dark suit with monogrammed shirt cuffs and a crisp, white handkerchief in his breast pocket.
The bigger man, Jack W. Gravely, who had driven from Washington, greeted the other man, James M. Kilby, with a firm handshake. Then he got down to questions. How many members of the black community were coming tonight? Were any black ministers on board?
Kilby bowed his head. No ministers yet. A local NAACP representative might show up but probably not speak.
Gravely bristled. He had been an NAACP associate of Kilby's father, James Wilson Kilby, and they had fought civil rights battles in the 1970s and '80s. At the father's funeral in 2003, Gravely suggested naming a local high school after him. Now, with two new high schools being planned, county residents -- white and black -- seemed cool to that idea, so the two men were on their way to a school board meeting to plead their case.
To the son, it was obvious: In 1958, his father, a farmer and janitor with a sixth-grade education, led a group of black families in filing a lawsuit that forced Warren County High School to admit blacks. The battle was bitter, but on Feb. 18, 1959, three Kilby children, including 16-year-old James, were among 20 black students who walked up a grassy hill, past hecklers and policemen, and into the school. It was the first challenge to Virginia's "Massive Resistance" laws and a precursor to such battles as the one that would close Prince Edward County schools for five years.
Warren County, which has been between 6 and 12 percent black, is still largely rural but is adding subdivisions and residents; it has grown from 14,000 residents then to 34,000 now. To make room for new students, the old high school will become a middle school and two high schools are being built. Kilby sees no better tribute than to name one for his father.
"He had a lot of nerve and a lot of heart," Kilby, 63, said. "He was a hero."
But he was not a hero to many Front Royal residents. Some are too young or too new here to remember the late 1950s; others recall it as a painful time. The School Board recently adopted a policy against naming new schools after people until at least 10 years after their deaths, hoping to avoid what one member called "dueling obituaries" for nominees, and decided against naming either high school after an individual.
To Kilby, the decisions were a call to battle. They also sharpened his determination to come to terms with his own history. The elder Kilby had not exactly been a hero to his children when they marched up that hill into an empty school -- the white students had stayed home -- and into a lonely adolescence in which they had few friends, white or black.
A Life of Fear, Prayer
It wasn't easy to be a child of James Wilson Kilby.
The family farmhouse stood in a tranquil spot called Happy Creek, in view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The older children rose at 4:30 each morning to milk the cows and feed the hogs. They were raised to obey their parents, teachers and God.
But when their father went up against segregation, dread filled the household. Shots were fired at the windows. A noose was left in the front yard. The cows were killed and mutilated. Their dog, Tylo, was poisoned.
"We were scared to walk by the windows," Kilby said. "We would have to get down on our knees and crawl." When their father went out, they prayed he would come home alive.
Even some black residents accused Kilby of stirring up trouble over a problem they believed would be resolved by challenges elsewhere in the country. But his determination to improve his children's education overtook everything else -- even his children's needs.
"He wanted me to be a lawyer," said Kilby, the oldest, "but to be honest with you, after I got my high school education I was so messed up that I hated school. My high school career was miserable. We couldn't go to the prom, we couldn't participate in sports."
His sister, Betty Kilby Fisher, then 13, said she was harassed so relentlessly that her grades plummeted and she couldn't get into college.
"They told us that we were . . . soldiers in God's army, marching to get an education," said Fisher, now a motivational speaker living in Texas. "But we felt like sacrificial lambs. . . . They told us we were making it better for everyone, but some of the people that we were supposed to be making it better for, they hated us with a passion. They were more cruel to us than the white people."
After high school, she got a job in a factory. Kilby moved to Washington and took a series of jobs -- as a porter, a deliveryman and a messenger in the White House, where he shook hands with two presidents and where, on the day in 1964 when Martin Luther King Jr. came for the signing of the civil rights bill, he and other employees were among those given commemorative pens. He still has his.
But for many years, he didn't want to talk about his own role in integration. Then, in 1989, his father asked him to participate in a TV station's reenactment of his first walk into Warren County High.
"This TV reporter, he interviewed us all the way up the hill," he said, "and after I left that interview, I thought, 'Well, this would have been a great movie.' I said, 'Well, if they think it was that great, I should be thinking that the movement I participated in was great.' "
And so began Kilby's foray into activism. He started an organization called TEAR (Treat Every American Right), and since 2003, he has been an associate minister at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Front Royal. He also has written a memoir, "The Forever Fight," whose back cover says that since age 13, he "has recognized tones of racism in everything he has attempted to do." His two sisters have written similar memoirs.
Fisher said their commitment comes in some measure from a belated appreciation of their father's motives, which she said took her 40 years to understand. "Part of why we did what we did is because of the guilt that we harbored for how we felt as children," she said. "The nearest person to blame was him."
'Already a Legend'
At the School Board meeting that March night, Kilby raised a fist and accused the board of having "the audacity to deny history and deny greatness." The timing of its decision not to name schools after recently deceased people, he said, "is highly suspicious."
Next came Gravely, who told board members that if they granted the family's request, "you will not make Mr. Kilby a legend, because Mr. Kilby is already a legend."
The only other speakers were Kilby's brother, Gene, and three white supporters -- two middle-aged women who moved to town after desegregation, and Walter Duncan, now in his eighties, who was town manager during the mid-1960s. Kilby's other sister, Patricia Kilby-Robb, attended in support but did not speak.
Board members typically do not respond during public comment sessions. Later, they said their policy had nothing to do with Kilby.
Vice Chairman James S. Wells said the 10-year rule allows unknown issues to surface. "Everyone has a skeleton in the closet of some type. Like J. Edgar Hoover -- it made a lot of sense to name the FBI building after him shortly after he was deceased. But as time has shown, the worst situation is if things get out and you have to un-name the building or the park."
Since then, Kilby has been before the board three more times, delivering a new speech each time.
Board Chairman Kimberly M. Athey sees something of the father in the son, who she said seems "blind to the thought that there might be other people who are equally deserving. . . . But I guess that's how you get things done. That's how his father got things done, by not taking 'No' for an answer and by putting his head down and just pushing on."
She said that although she has nothing against Kilby ("I like the man"), his approach "feels like an attack. He wants to take the attitudes that were prevailing in the late '50s and superimpose them on those of us who are in power now. But I wasn't even alive in the late '50s. I'm not a racist, and I'm not guilty of those things he's suggesting."
This spring, the School Board sent out a survey asking residents to suggest names for the school. Only 23 of the 1,523 respondents wrote in "James Wilson Kilby." To Kilby's knowledge, none of the 23 were black; in fact, he said, a few black people wrote "anybody but Kilby."
That disappoints but doesn't surprise him. Kilby's opinions of much of the local black community are sprinkled with such terms as "Uncle Tom" and "their kind of black person."
"They feel that if you cozy with the white people, you never rock the boat -- and look at them, they got a school named," he said of the family of Hilda J. Barbour, a longtime black teacher who had a school named for her in the 1990s. "They're not going to join us. [They say] 'Look at Kilby, he rocked the boat and look at all the trouble they're getting.' "
Even his own pastor, the Rev. Alfred Woods, has told him the battle is not worth it, he said. Calls to Woods and Barbour's brother were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at Woods's house said, "Why don't you just let sleeping dogs lie?"
There are at least two more board meetings before a vote is expected. He was initially adamant about having his father's name on a high school, but he said he is open to a middle or elementary school. But no such offer has been made.
"You know what they offered?" he said, his voice rising. "An exhibit in the hallway of the school. That's degrading. That's just being totally ridiculous."
And so he soldiers on, almost alone.
"When I get finished with them, they're going to be sick of me." He laughed softly. "Because every time someone turns on the education channel, they see the Pledge of Allegiance and then the public speaking starts and the first thing they see is me.
"One day they will get it," he said. "And if they don't get it, at least they'll know I tried."