[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 below.
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 interviewthat 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 Cash 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.”
Connections to Rhode Island
The Diocese of Rhode Island has a special connection to Jonathan Daniels. In 1963 Daniels spent time in Rhode Island as a seminarian. While here Daniels worked within the Providence community. Jonathan often would refer back to his work in Providence as “the most important of [his] life to date.”
In honor of Jonathan Daniels the diocese began the Johnathan Daniels House. An intentional community of young adults living and working in the greater providence area. Jonathan Daniels House interns will seek to build the Kingdom of God by struggling for justice on the local and systemic level, striving for reconciliation among all people, and maintaining the presence of the Church here in Rhode Island.
The Jonathan Daniels House is a member site of the Episcopal Service Corps, a network enabling young adults to follow Jesus in intentional communities of service, justice, and prayer.