You may never have heard of him. Let me introduce you to Jonathan Daniels.
August 14, 1965 Daniels was arrested in Lowndes County, Alabama with those who had gathered in preparation for an anti-discrimination protest against a local business. For the next six days, Daniels endured a steamy Hayneville jail with no showers or toilets. More about what followed, but first, what brought a twenty-six year old white seminarian from New Hampshire to “Bloody Lownes,” as it was known?
His personal history was not an obvious path to his future. The privileged son of a Keene physician, he departed for Virginia Military Institute with thoughts of entering ministry. Then his father died suddenly, which led to a severe questioning of faith. After graduating valedictorian he went to Harvard to study English Literature, but the whisper returned. In 1963 he entered a seminary just down the street from Harvard.
In March, 1965 Daniels and a friend, Judith Upham, responded to Dr. King’s call for clergy and students to join the march from Selma to Montgomery. Thinking they would leave on a Thursday and return on Monday, they were interrupted by a life-changing passion.
“Something had happened to me in Selma, which meant I had to come back,” Daniels 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 …”
Upon return to seminary, they convinced the administration to allow them to finish the semester in Selma and return for exams in June. Upham had other commitments that summer but Daniels stayed in Selma. Living with a local African American family, he helped register voters, assisted poor families with applications for government assistance, and attempted unsuccessfully to integrate a local Episcopal congregation. Just eight days before Jonathan went to jail, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act.
On August 20 (55 years ago tomorrow), with eerie silence and no explanation, a deputy unlocked the cell and the group walked out. All but four of them went to find transportation back to Selma. Daniels, a young Catholic priest named Richard Morrisroe (whose son, Richard, Jr. is running for County Executive in Chautauqua County), and two African-American young women, Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, went to a store across the street to buy sodas for the group.
Special Deputy Tom Coleman, 12-gauge shotgun in his hands and pistol tucked in his waist, appeared between them and the store. Coleman lowered the shotgun, aimed it as Sales, and pumped. Daniels pushed Ruby to the ground and received the full blast in his mid-section. Morrisroe grabbed Joyce and yelled for her to run, and as they did, the young priest took the second blast to the back.
Jonathan Daniels died in the street that day, Morrisroe recovered over time from his wounds, and both young women escaped. Forty days later, Coleman was declared innocent by an all-white jury who shook his hand on the steps of the courthouse. The case eventually contributed to ending the exclusion of African-Americans and women from juries.
“Say their names” is the chant, witnessing to American martyrs. So many dead. So many names. Jonathan Daniels is one of those names.
Information for this column was garnered from Episcopal News Service, “Remembering Jonathan Daniels” (August 13, 2015), and “Episodes” African American Registry (AAREG) online (March 3, 2020).