[Episcopal News Service – Keene, New Hampshire] Fifty years and three days after Jonathan Daniels died in Hayneville, Alabama, by stepping in front of a shotgun aimed at her, Ruby Sales, a human rights activist, said her heart was heavy as she preached in his home parish, St. James Episcopal Church.
But she also said she found joy in this year’s commemorations of Daniels’ death, along with renewed hope for the future.
“I wonder what Jonathan would make of a world where intimacy has been reduced to a virtual experience” where people talk to each other via smartphones, even bring them to the dinner table, said Sales, who operates the Atlanta, Georgia-based SpiritHouse Project to work for racial, economic and social justice.
“The world that Jonathan imagined was a world of intimacy; it created a new intimacy, a stronger intimacy, a new union, a new marriage, between people who never would have met or sat down with each other.”
Sales called on the congregation to take up Daniels’ commitment.
“This is an opportunity to play a critical role at a critical moment in America’s history,” she said. “It is an opportunity to once again be on the front lines of struggle as the country decides which direction it will go.
At the end of Sunday’s Eucharist, the Rev. Judith Upham, a seminary classmate of Daniels’ who went with him to Alabama in the spring of 1965, presented the parish with an award that she said rightly belonged in the Keene church. It was a Martyrs of the Movement award given in Daniels’ memory during a March 29 Palm Sunday “service of reconciliation” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama.
Members of St. Paul’s, most of whom are white, joined with members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, most of whom are black, and members of Brown Chapel AME Church for the service. In the spring of 1965, an interracial group of Episcopal clergy and lay people, including Daniels and Upham, who had responded to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to come to Selma in the wake of Bloody Sunday, attempted to worship at the church several times, but were turned away at the door. Those who eventually participated in the first integrated service, held on March 28, 1965, included Daniels, who was murdered by a deputy sheriff in Haynesville five months later, saving Sales’ life.
Daniels became a member of St. James in Keene after he moved there from Keene United Church of Christ and St. James was sponsoring his journey towards ordination when he was killed. Neither of Daniels’ parents or his sister is living and so, Upham said, she was asked to accept the Martyrs of the Movement award, deciding to bring it to Keene.
Sunday’s Eucharist in Keene, which was followed by a 2.3 “walk of remembrance” to the Daniels’ family gravesite in Monadnock View Cemetery for a service, culminated a year’s worth of events organized by members of St. James Episcopal Church, along with others. On Aug. 22, a commemorative weekend included panel discussions featuring people who knew Daniels followed by an evening screening at Keene’s Colonial Theater of the 1999 nearly hour-long documentary Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels, produced by Keene State College professors Lawrence Benaquist and William Sullivan. The documentary, narrated by actor Sam Waterston, is viewable here.
During remarks before the screening, community volunteer Hank Knight read a letter from President Barak Obama in which the president said that the country’s destiny was shaped by “selfless individuals” such as Daniels. Obama wrote that Daniels and other civil rights activists were heroes who embodied patriotism and gave their full measure on the “battlefield of justice.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.