University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute
James McIlhany Thomson (August 9, 1924 – July 24, 2001) was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing Alexandria, Virginia from 1956 – 1977. A member of the Byrd Organization, Thomson became Democratic Floor Leader of the House from 1968 until his retirement in 1977.
Early life and education
James M. Thomson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 9, 1924. He was named after his uncle James M. Thomson, the renowned editor of the New Orleans States-Item, who once encouraged U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd to run for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thomson attended St. James Episcopal School in Maryland, then served in the United States Marine Corps in World War II. In 1946 he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, and received his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1950.
Thomson was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1955 from Alexandria, Virginia as the previous delegate, Armistead L. Boothe won a seat in the Virginia Senate (this election was the first in which the seat from the growing city was assigned a district). He thus began his part-time public service during the era of Massive Resistance to racial desegregation of public schools as required by the 1954 and 1955 decisions in Brown v. Board of Education. Unlike Boothe, Thomson worked to support segregation, in part because his sister Gretchen Bigelow Thomson had married Harry F. Byrd Jr., the son and heir apparent to Senator Harry F. Byrd, who had declared the Massive Resistance policy in February 1956.
Although a lawyer, Thomson believed that segregated schools could be restored, even after the decisions of the Virginia Supreme Court and a three-judge federal court issued on January 19, 1959 (Robert E. Lee's birthday) striking down segregationist portions of the Stanley plan. Earlier, in a special August 1956 legislative session, Virginia legislators passed the Stanley plan as well as created two new joint investigative committees. Among the laws then passed were seven directed against the NAACP and other organizations challenging racial segregation within the Commonwealth, drafted by fellow lawyer and state Senator Charles R. Fenwick of Arlington (one of the school districts being sued). The legislation exceeded the recommendations of the Gray Commission on which Fenwick and other Byrd loyalists sat. 77-year old Senator John B. Boatwright of Buckingham chaired the new Committee on Offenses against the Administration of Justice. His committee's subpoenaing NAACP membership lists and other investigative activities did reduce the organization's membership by half. However, by 1959 Boatwright was complaining that the Virginia State Bar was spending $5000 on a Jamestown commemoration and $6350 on a new continuing legal education program, but not "punishing those guilty of unprofessional conduct and those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law" under the Stanley plan's 1956 ethics law expansion. The 32 year old delegate Thomson chaired the other new investigative committee, the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities (a/k/a Thomson Committee). His aggressive questioning of printer David H. Scull (a Quaker from Annandale) concerning a desegregationist pamphlet Scull published, led to Scull's questioning the committee's and questions' scope and being cited for contempt by an Arlington court, which case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In Scull v. Virginia ex rel. Committee on Law Reform & Racial Activities issued on May 4, 1959, the justices unanimously overturned Scull's conviction.
Despite (or because of) his segregationist position, Thomson handily won his next primary election in July 1959, as well as reelection that fall (Boothe also won, against a segregationist challenger). After most local schools reopened and segregation became less popular in 1961, Thomson survived a primary challenge from Dennis K. Lane. This time he lost the initial vote count by four votes, but won the Democratic nomination (and later re-election) by one vote after a recount ordered by the Virginia Supreme Court. This was the first of several narrow elections which earned Thomson the nickname "Landslide Jim".
He ultimately served until 1977. From 1968 until 1977, Thomson was the Democratic Floor Leader of the Virginia House. He lost his House seat in the 1977 election to Republican William L. Scott, who only served one term before running for a United States Senate seat (and winning).
After his electoral loss, Thomson was appointed Virginia's insurance commissioner.
Thomson died on July 24, 2001 in Berryville, Virginia and was buried in the Thomson family plot at the Edge Hill Cemetery in Charles Town, West Virginia with his parents, brothers and two aunts. His sister Gretchen Thomson Byrd, who had married Harry F. Byrd, Jr., is buried in the Byrd family plot in Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia (between Berryville and Charles Town).