Christian nobility

Daily Reading for August 14 • Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Seminarian and Martyr, 1965

In 1965 Lowndes County, Alabama, the piney hill country between Selma and Montgomery, was known among civil rights workers as “Bloody Lowndes.” It was one of the poorest counties in America, a place where 80 percent of the population was black, and not one black had ever voted. The official motto of the Lowndes County Democratic party was “White Supremacy.” After civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered, bumper stickers reading “Open Season” appeared on cars in Lowndes County. “Selma was scary enough,” said one civil rights worker, “but Lowndes County was the edge of the civilized planet.”

It was the last place one might have expected to find a young man named Jonathan Myrick Daniels from Keene, New Hampshire, in a jail cell, writing a note to his mother. Daniels was 26 years old, white, a doctor’s son who was about to enter his third year of divinity school. That spring he had answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to join him in fighting for voting rights in Lowndes County. . . . Three days later, on Connie Daniels’s 50th birthday, Jon Daniels and 18 other civil rights workers were abruptly released without bail. While someone hurried to a pay phone to call Montgomery for rides, Daniels and Father Richard Morrisroe, a 25-year-old Catholic priest from Chicago, accompanied two black teenage girls, Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, to buy sodas at Varner’s Cash Store, the only place in Hayneville that would serve blacks.

“There was a kind of eerie feeling,” remembers Ruby Sales, “as if suddenly the streets were deserted, and we could not locate a black face anywhere. We were very hot and very tired. I told Jon I felt something wasn’t right, and he assured us everything would be fine. He was always so calming in that way.”

As they approached the Cash Store, a 52-year-old part-time deputy sheriff named Tom Coleman stepped into the doorway holding a pump shotgun. According to witnesses, he told the group, “This store is closed. If you black bitches don’t get off this goddamned property, I’m going to blow your brains out.”

Coleman leveled his gun at Ruby Sales. Witnesses later testified that Daniels pushed Sales to the ground just as the shotgun discharged. Daniels died instantly from a wound in the stomach; the force of the blast propelled him a dozen feet backward. Father Morrisroe grabbed Joyce Bailey and hurled her behind a parked car just as a second blast struck him, almost cutting him in half. Miraculously, he survived.

As witnesses fled for safety, Coleman walked to the courthouse and phoned the sheriff in Montgomery. “I just shot two preachers,” he reported. “Y’all better get on down here.”

A month later, an all-white jury found Coleman not guilty of manslaughter. The Lowndes County solicitor, who prosecuted the case, said afterward that Daniels would still be alive if he’d chosen to mind his own business.

In New Hampshire, the Keene Sentinel editorialized: “White Southerners and Northerners who hold (that) view . . . simply do not, and apparently cannot, understand why a white man would risk his life to help a Negro register to vote or teach Negro children to read. They simply do not understand that, to men like Jonathan Daniels, all men are brothers, and skin color means nothing. . . . In dying, not only was Jonathan Daniels minding his own business, but he was also attending to His business.”

“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career was performed by Jonathan Daniels,” said Martin Luther King Jr., when he heard of the tragedy. “Certainly there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility.”

Two days after his death, Jon Daniels received the last rites of his faith at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene.

From “The Legacy of Jonathan Daniels” by James Dodson, in the January 1992 issue of Yankee magazine.

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