Recalling Jonathan Myrick Daniels

me at courthouse

I’m standing (or, more accurately, hovering) in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Alabama.  Hayneville is like many of the towns in the Black Belt of Alabama (so called because it’s one of the few regions in the state where the soil is black earth instead of red clay):  small, sleepy, economically challenged if not outright dying.  Once a year, though, visitors descend on Hayneville — not for a festival in the sense most people think, but to remember a life of dedication to service and faith, to courage, and to the beginning (pray God) of an end.  Yearly, around August 14, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama holds a pilgrimage dedicated to the life and death of a man not from their region, but who shook up the region in ways nobody could foresee at the time.

Daniels as a VMI cadet.

Daniels as a VMI cadet.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a New Hampshire man, the son of a doctor.  Born in 1939, he applied himself well enough to enter Virginia Military Institute, from which he graduated in 1961 as the class valedictorian.  He was awarded a valuable scholarship, and entered Harvard University to major in English.

Jonathan Daniels at seminary

Plans can change, though.  Daniels had been brought up a Congregationalist, but questioned his faith while at VMI.  However, in 1962, while attending an Easter service in Boston, he felt a renewed calling, and chose to change career paths.  He enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge in 1963.

Daniels in Alabama

Things changed again in 1965.  As many of us may recall who were alive then, 1965 was a turbulent time, to put it mildly.  American involvement in the Vietnam war was increasing; more importantly to this story, the civil rights movement was meeting with huge resistance from the southern states it was at work in.  Hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for more white clergy to get involved in the black voter-registration work going on, Daniels, now a seminarian, looked deep into himself, doubted his feelings for a time, but ultimately answered the call when he felt sure that God was asking him to help.  He set off for Selma in the summer, and the work he entered into ultimately led him to the town of Ft. Deposit.

storefront

The building which housed the store in front of which Daniels was killed. The owner of the building had it torn down, along with the apron where Daniels died, in 2014.

Daniels was arrested on August 14, along with other protesters involved in picketing “whites-only” stores in Fort Deposit.  They were transported to Hayneville and held in the jail there; some were released early, but several others, including Daniels, refused to go unless all were given the opportunity to make bail.  After being held in an steamy jail for six days, the group was finally released without explanation on August 20; none of them had paid or been offered bail.  No transportation was supplied for them to return to Fort Deposit; while one of the group went to telephone to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for a ride back, Daniels, Father Richard Morrisroe (a Catholic priest) and two African American students walked to a store which was willing to sell to blacks, to get some cold drinks.  Outside of the store, Thomas Coleman, a former deputy sheriff, barred the way with a shotgun, and aimed it at Ruby Sales, one of the students.  Daniels reacted on instinct and pushed Sales out of the line of fire; in doing so, he took the shot himself, and died on the store’s concrete apron.  Father Morrisroe, attempting to escape with student Joyce Bailey, took a second shot, but survived his wounds and is alive today.  Coleman was charged with manslaughter, but claimed self-defense, saying that he had been threatened with a knife and a gun.  He was acquitted by an all-white jury, which the Attorney General of Alabama (!) deplored as “[an example of the] democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement.”

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Daniels Pilgrimage

It took the death of a courageous man to break through some mindsets, but it was effective.  Much of the Episcopal Church began re-evaluating positions following the murder, which was characterized by Martin Luther King as “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry….”  Daniels was eventually proclaimed a martyr of the church, and his name added to the calendar of Lesser Feasts.  August 14 is the day set aside for remembrance of him, and an annual pilgrimage of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama walks the courthouse square of Hayneville each year on or near that date to commemorate him and remember his death, as well as others who died in Alabama working for civil rights.

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and  violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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