James Lindsay Almond Jr. was born in Charlottesville on June 15, 1898. From a young age, he showed an interest in oratory and politics. By the time he was sixteen, he was making speeches on behalf of local political candidates, a practice that would eventually bring him to the attention of the powerful Democratic United States senator(1887–1966).
After finishing law school in 1923, Almond worked briefly as a private-practice trial lawyer in Roanoke before becoming assistant commonwealth’s attorney. In 1933, he received his first judgeship on the Hustings Court of the city of Roanoke, which was almost certainly a reward for Almond’s campaign efforts in Harry Byrd’s successful 1925 gubernatorial bid. From the bench, Almond fought against election fraud, illegal liquor sales, and, most surprisingly, the unequal treatment given to whites and African Americans by juries.
During this time, Almond also took an active part in state and national politics, joining first in Byrd’s 1925 gubernatorial campaign and then in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Al Smith in 1928 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. He first ran for Congress in 1945, following the unanticipated resignation of the sixth district representative Clifton Woodrum. After a swift campaign and landslide election, Almond was sworn in on February 4, 1946. During his congressional term, Almond participated in the debates on such major legislative efforts as the Marshall Plan and the Taft-Hartley Act, both of which he vigorously supported. In April 1948, he unexpectedly became attorney general of Virginia following the death of his predecessor, Harvey Black Apperson. Byrd specifically requested Almond for the job, since he knew that Almond’s speaking skills would be a vital asset in the Democrats’ 1949 gubernatorial campaign.
Almond’s tenure as attorney general and most of his term as governor were dominated by one issue: school desegregation. By the time Almond ran for governor in 1957, Virginia was in the midst of a widespread effort to maintain segregation in its public schools. Almond won the election by pledging to uphold what became known as the Massive Resistance movement. In September 1958, he made good on a promise of his predecessorwhen he closed schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk rather than see them desegregated. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, however, overturned the school-closing law on January 19, 1959, the same day that the federal district court in Norfolk made a similar ruling. Despite last-minute appeals from Almond, the closed schools reopened to an integrated student body. By early in 1960, Almond retreated from his previously unyielding stance on desegregation, separating himself from the still-vociferous Massive Resisters in the Byrd Organization. He allowed Virginia schools to integrate, but only with token efforts that maintained the spirit of segregation (a strategy the historian Robert A. Pratt has called “passive resistance”). In its 1968 decision ., the U.S. Supreme Court declared that this approach was also illegal. Almond left office in 1962 and served on the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals from June 1963 until his death on April 14, 1986, at the age of eighty-seven.