[Episcopal News Service] In Fort Deposit, Alabama, the day of Aug. 14, 1965, began hot and humid, and it only got more oppressive as it went on.
It was the beginning of the last six days of Jonathan Daniels’ life, most of which would be spent in a squalid county jail and which would end with the 26-year-old dying from a shotgun blast as he saved the life of another. He would become the 26th civil rights worker to be murdered.
Early that Saturday morning, 30 people — most of them young, most of them African-American and most of them from the area — gathered at the AME church just outside of town to finalize their plan to protest outside of businesses in Fort Deposit. They wanted to call attention to discriminatory hiring practices, unequal treatment of customers and price gouging.
Many had been involved in an unsuccessful boycott earlier in the year of their segregated black high school after its superintendent refused to consider a list of demands aimed at improving their education. And the county school board blocked their attempt to integrate the all-white high school in Hayneville about 18 miles away. They wanted to find a niche in the civil right movement in Lowndes County, often called “Bloody Lowndes” for the way violence enforced segregation.
Just eight days earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the historic Voting Rights Act. Most of the young organizers who gathered on Aug. 14 were too young to vote, but they wanted to be part of the movement so they proposed the protest against businesses in Fort Deposit. They soon learned that two FBI agents were in town to observe the first voter registration efforts in the county. The agents, one author says, told them police were prepared to arrest the protestors as soon as they entered the street. At the same time a crowd of white men armed with clubs, broken bottles and guns was assembling to confront them.
The protest lasted a few minutes until police arrested everyone, including Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian from what then was known as Episcopal Theological School, now Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were loaded onto a flatbed truck the county normally used for hauling trash and taken to the jail in Hayneville, the county seat of Lowndes County.
Daniels and fellow seminarian Judith Upham first had come to Alabama in March, responding to a call from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for Northern clergy to come south in support of the movement. They arrived on a Thursday, intending to be home in Cambridge in time for classes Monday morning. They stayed nearly a week and returned with the conviction that they were called to return to Alabama as witness to the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
“Something had happened to me in Selma, which meant I had to come back,” Daniels once wrote. “I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question … I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here.”
Daniels and Upham returned the following week to spend the semester. “Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings … Sometime we confront the posse, sometimes we hold a child,” Daniels wrote, describing their daily work.
He said Selma in 1965 was like the entire world, ambiguous and filled with doubt and fear. Into that world must come saints, he said. And Selma “needs the life and witness of militant saints.”
New Hampshire Bishop Rob Hirschfeld says he doesn’t think Daniels really knew what he was going to do when he came to live in Alabama, “except to go and listen and learn and be with.”
“He embodied the Word being made flesh,” Hirschfeld to ENS.
And, yet, Keene State College Professor Lawrence Benaquist said he suspected that for Daniels the idea that he would become a recognized saint “would have been ridiculous to him.” Benaquist immersed himself in Daniels’ life for the 1999 nearly hour-long documentary Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels, which he and Keene State colleague William Sullivan made. The documentary, narrated by actor Sam Waterston, is viewable here.
Daniels, who went back with Upham to ETS for final exams and to visit his family in his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, returned to Alabama for the summer of 1965. Upham spent that summer fulfilling the school’s clinical pastoral education requirement at a state mental hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.
When Daniels wanted to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Lowndes County, the group refused, according to legendary SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael.
“We had no base in Lowndes County, so there was no way to protect him, and if he were working with us, he would be clearly a target of the Ku Klux Klan and our work then would be just protecting him rather than doing our work,” Carmichael recalled during a 1988 interview that was a followup to the PBS series Eyes on the Prize. Daniels accused him of being racist, he added.
Daniels, instead, joined some Lowndes County work being done by the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, whose first president was King. Meanwhile, Carmichael and Daniels got to know and like each other that summer. Carmichael later said he came to realize that Daniels was “more interested in lasting solutions rather than the temporary ones.”
Six days in Hayneville jail, then a suspicious reprieve
At the Hayneville Jail after his arrest at the Fort Deposit protest, Daniels shared a cell with Carmichael, who had been arrested with a fellow SNCC member following a fender-bender involving a car full of armed white men. The group spent six hot August days in the jail without air conditioning. There were no showers and no toilets. Daniels led the group in hymn singing and prayers, boosting morale and combating the bleakness of the situation.
Carmichael and his colleague made bail on their charges and left for Selma on Aug. 20. A few hours later, the jailers inexplicably unlocked all the doors and told the rest of the prisoners they were free to go. No one was waiting to pick them up, so it was clear that no one’s friends had posted bail.
“I’m convinced it was a setup,” Upham told Episcopal News Service in 2012.
While waiting for a ride and after having been ordered off the jail property, Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe and two black demonstrators, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, walked to buy soda for the group at Varner’s Store, about 50 yards from the jail. “They’d been there before in mixed groups, so it theoretically wasn’t that big a deal,” Upham said.
Thomas Coleman, a county special deputy wielding a 12-gauge automatic pump shotgun, stood on the concrete pad outside the store. He crudely ordered them off the property.
“Things happened so fast,” Ruby Sales, who was 17 at the time and on leave from Tuskegee Institute, recalled years later. “The next thing I know there was a pull and I fall back. And there was a shotgun blast. And another shotgun blast. I heard Father Morrisroe, moaning for water.”
“I thought to myself: ‘I’m dead. This is what it feels like to be dead.”
Bailey, who had run behind an abandoned car, called to Sales who, realizing she was still alive, crawled over to her. They began to run. The rest of the group scattered and ran, knocking on doors as they passed homes. “Nobody would let us in; people were so terrified,” Sales said.
Coleman, a county engineer and a member of one of the oldest white families in Lowndes County, had leveled his gun and fired, blowing Daniels backwards. Daniels lay motionless on the ground. Morrisroe had retreated, taking Bailey by the hand. Coleman shot him in the back. He required hours of surgery to survive.
When other SNCC workers went to look for Daniels’ body, they could not find it, Sales said. “The streets had been swept clean, and you could not tell a murder had taken place.”
Meanwhile, back in Keene that morning, Daniels’ mother, Constance, did not know that her son had even been in jail. She worried when the day’s mail did not include a birthday card for her from Daniels, who never forgot such things. Aug. 20 was her 60th birthday.
Two months before his murder, Daniels wrote this about living with and advocating with blacks in what was known as the so-called Alabama Black Belt: “I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.”
The nation reacts, Keene buries a son, and Coleman goes on trial
President Johnson ordered a federal investigation of the shooting. The next day, his chief civil rights aide, Lee White, told Johnson that Daniels’ mother was having a hard time getting her son’s body returned from Alabama. Johnson told White to handle the transportation of Daniels’ corpse.
Carmichael traveled to Keene for Daniels’ funeral at St. James Episcopal Church, the parish that sponsored Daniels for ordination. Carmichael and a group of mourners sang a tearful We Shall Overcome at Daniels’ grave near his father’s at the edge of the Monadnock View Cemetery.
King called Daniels’ death “brutal and bestial,” but said that he had performed “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”
Alice West, with whom Daniels and Upham lived in Selma, said that Daniels had been a part of her family. “We all loved him and trusted him,” she told a website for veterans of the civil rights movement. “He taught my family all about the wonders of God’s love. His death took a toll on my family as well as all the black people in Selma, Alabama.”
Coleman claimed he acted in self-defense. The day after Daniels death Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers called it “another Ku Klux Klan murder.” Flowers took over the case when a county grand jury indicted Coleman, 55, for manslaughter, not murder. The trial judge refused to postpone the trial until the state’s key witness, Morrisroe, could recover from his wounds. An all-white jury acquitted him 40 days after Daniels’ murder and shook hands with him as he left the courthouse.
Then-Presiding Bishop John Hines said that what Coleman’s acquittal showed “about the likelihood of minorities securing even-handed justice in some parts of this country should jar the conscience of all men who still believe in the concept of justice in this land of hope.”
Instead of attributing Coleman’s release to the price a free society pays for the jury system, Hines said it was “the fearful price extracted from society for the administration of the system by people whose prejudices lead them to sacrifice justice upon the altar of their irrational fears.”
Coleman’s acquittal led to Operation Southern Justice, a campaign and lawsuit undertaken by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity in conjunction with the National Council of Churches and other groups to integrate southern juries.
“Because of Jonathan, the justice system changed,” said Sandra Wallace, who with her husband Rich is writing a biography of Daniels. Wallace, a Keene resident, told ENS that the change began with a lawsuit, White v. Crook, filed in Lowndes County. It started a “domino effect” across the South, she said, ending the systematic exclusion of African-Americans and women from juries.
(The Wallaces’ book, Blood Brother, is due out in the fall of 2016.)
Honoring Daniels in the years since his murder
Daniels’ seminary established a fellowship in his honor the year after his death. The fellowship is awarded annually to provide financial assistance to one or more seminarians seeking to strengthen their theological education through participation in a social movement concerned with important human needs. In 1991, to mark 25 years since his death, Daniels’ Class of 1966 established the Jonathan Myrick Daniels Memorial Lectureship to regularly bring leaders in social ethics to the campus.
The Episcopal Church added Daniels to its Lesser Feasts and Fasts calendar of commemorations in 1994. His feast day is Aug. 14, the day of his arrest. Then-New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner stood at the microphone with Alabama Bishop Robert O. Miller of Alabama, his co-sponsor of the move to officially designate Daniels a martyr of the church, and called their joint sponsorship of the resolution “a great act of reconciliation.”
When Daniels died more than 25 years earlier, Thuener said, “the mind of the church in those two dioceses was not a common one around the issues over which Jonathan Daniels gave his life.”
Daniels is one of six 20th-century individual martyrs honored in the church’s most recently proposed calendar of commemorations, A Great Cloud of Witnesses, and the only Episcopalian. (The calendar also honors three groups of modern-day martyrs.)
Daniels’ death reverberated elsewhere in American society. At his undergraduate alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, Daniels has been honored regularly since his death. One of only four named archways in the VMI barracks is dedicated to Daniels, as is a memorial courtyard.
The archway is marked by a plaque containing Daniels’ wish for his fellow graduating cadets from his 1961 valedictory address: “I wish you the decency and the nobility of which you are capable.” The Daniels Courtyard features a plaque with civil rights leader King’s response to Daniels’ death.
Each VMI entering class views the documentary Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels.
VMI alums and the school erected a memorial in 1997 in Hayneville near where Daniels’ died. Cadets often visit the site.
Also in 1997, the military school established the Jonathan Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award. President Jimmy Carter was the first recipient. This year, on March 11, 50 years to the day after Daniels arrived in Selma, Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) received the award. Lewis was a leader of the civil rights movement. During the March 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis was one of hundreds of protestors who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge heading out of Selma. Police severely beat the peaceful marchers, including Lewis, with nightsticks, fired tear gas into their ranks and charged them on horseback.
“The blood of Jonathan Daniels … helped to bring us to where we are today,” Lewis said in receiving the award.
In Canterbury, England, Daniels is among those remembered in the cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time. He and King, who was assassinated in 1968, are the only Americans on the list of 15 individual martyrs and the seven Melanesian Brothers killed in 2003 by militants during ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands. Others honored in the chapel include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero and the man who inspired the chapel, Ugandan Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, who dictator Idi Amin’s forces killed in 1977.
And Daniels is remembered by his hometown. A well-used trail along the Ashuelot River in Keene is named after him. Keene’s city government website offers information and resources on Daniels.
Jonathan Daniels Elementary School opened three years after Daniels’ death. The building features a large display case of Daniels memorabilia as well as artwork featuring the school’s namesake and a print of the Canterbury Cathedral chapel that includes the names of those honored as martyrs. The school has a civil rights club in which students learn more about the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
Keene’s demographics are forcing a change at the school, which will stop being an elementary school after the 2015-2016 academic year. It will reopen as a preschool. Administrative offices also will be housed in the building. Some students hope to convince the school board to rename a nearby middle school in Daniels’ honor.
Marking 50 years since Daniels death
This year, set against the backdrop of newly visible racial tensions in the United States, has been a year of commemorations of Daniels’ witness and sacrifice.
Those events are culminating this month. A weekend of events in Alabama, sponsored by the Diocese of Alabama, begins the evening of Aug. 14, Daniels’s feast day, with a program at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery. Morris Dees Jr., co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, will be the guest speaker.
On Aug. 15, a larger-than-normal number of people is expected at the annual Jonathan Daniels & Martyrs of Alabama Pilgrimage beginning at the Lowndes County Courthouse Square in Hayneville. A historical marker will be dedicated at the site of the now-torn-down grocery store where Daniels was murdered. The pilgrims will return to the courthouse to celebrate Eucharist in the courtroom where Coleman was acquitted. The judge’s bench will be the altar. Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry is the scheduled preacher.
Curry also will preach the next day at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, a parish Daniels, Upham and others struggled to integrate.
The Diocese of Alabama plans to make video of Dees’ presentation and Curry’s Selma sermon available on demand via its website.
Also on Aug. 16, Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., plans to focus its Sunday Forum on Daniels. His will be the newest figure added to the cathedral’s Human Rights Porch.
Many Episcopal congregations in the state of Virginia will mark Daniels’ life and death on Aug. 16 as well. The Diocese of Virginia has compiled liturgical resources for the day, which are available here. The diocese will collect copies of service bulletins on that day and send them to St. James Episcopal Church in Keene.
In Keene, a year’s worth of events has been organized by members of St. James Episcopal Church, along with others. On Aug. 22, a commemorative weekend will begin with panel discussions featuring people who knew Daniels followed by an evening screening at Keene’s Colonial Theater of Here I Am, Send Me.
Sales, who operates the Atlanta-based SpiritHouse to work for racial, economic and social justice, is scheduled to preach during a worship service at St. James on Aug. 23. New Hampshire Bishop Rob Hirschfeld will preside. A two-mile “walk of remembrance” to the Daniels’ family gravesite will follow.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.