Jonathan Daniels ‘could have had any benefit he wanted.’ But in 1965 Alabama, the Episcopal seminarian was gunned down while trying to buy a Coke with two black girls.
The murder in cold blood and in broad daylight of a religious leader is horrifying enough. Especially in America, we associate our preachers with words not swords and expect them to be immune from violence. But merely a half-century ago, someone could brazenly kill an Episcopalian seminarian and shoot a Catholic priest without being punished. It happened, in August 1965, in racist Alabama.
In a just world, Jonathan Daniels, born in 1939, would be now completing a long, satisfying career as an Episcopal elder. Instead, he died a 26-year-old civil-rights martyr who sacrificed his life protecting a young black teenager.
Daniels was studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Episcopal Theological School—today’s Episcopal Divinity School. In March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for moral leadership from clerics brought Daniels to Selma, Alabama. Unlike most, he stayed, realizing, “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.”
After months organizing in Selma, Daniels started working in “Bloody Lowndes.” This Alabama county’s violent bigotry shocked the earnest, decent New Hampshire native, who wasn’t naïve, having proved himself tough enough to graduate as valedictorian of Virginia Military Institute. In an article published posthumously, he described his travels in the land of “whites only.” One night, buying coffee at a truck stop, he encountered a sign: “ALL CASH RECEIVED FROM SALES TO NIGGERS WILL BE SENT DIRECTLY TO THE UNITED KLANS OF AMERICA.” Sickened, he recalled, the “nausea rising swiftly and savagely…. It was lousy coffee. But worse than chicory was the taste of black men’s blood.”
Another day, while in Selma’s post office “a redneck turned and stared: at my seminarian’s collar, at my ESCRU button.” The man exclaimed: “Why, he’s a white niggah.” As everyone stared at Daniels, “deep within me rose an affirmation and a tenderness and a joy that wanted to shout. ‘Yes!’” Daniels called this, “the highest honor, the most precious distinction I have ever received. It is one that I do not deserve—and cannot ever earn. As I type now, my hands are hopelessly white.” But, he added, “my heart is black.”
This was the poetic and pious voice of Jonathan Daniels, humbled by his privilege, by his black friends’ suffering, and by the efforts required “to confront a people with the challenge of freedom and a nation with its conscience.” Hurt by the racism otherwise good people expressed, despairing, with King, of “the neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters,” Daniels concluded that our crazy world “needs the life and witness of militant Saints.”
Jonathan Daniels, the militant saint, marched with blacks and whites to overcome. He fought with older white Episcopalians to integrate Alabama’s church. He spent the summer of 1965 registering black voters in Lowndes County, as the Voting Rights Act was enacted. And, that August, he supported the black teens of Fort Deposit, too young to care about voting but old enough to resent being forced to enter from the back of a store and pay higher prices for the pleasure of being harassed when shopping.
On Aug. 14, Daniels joined 30 protesters picketing three stores. Police quickly arrested the demonstrators, transferring them by garbage truck to the Haynesville jail.
Despite suffering in Alabama’s summer heat, Daniels refused to be bailed out before the others. He wrote a 60th-birthday message to his mother: “The food is vile. And we aren’t allowed to bathe. Phew…. As you can imagine, I’ll have a tale or two to swap over our next martini.” That drink would go forever unmixed.
On Daniels’s mother’s birthday, Aug. 20, the jailers released the activists. Some feared a trap, because no one had bailed them out. As one friend called for a ride, Daniels, the Rev. Richard Morrisroe, a Roman Catholic priest, and two local black women, Ruby Sales, 17 and Joyce Bailey, 19, approached Varner’s Cash Store, to buy some Cokes.
Instead of consuming that all-American drink, they confronted an all-too-familiar Southern scene. Thomas Coleman, a 55-year-old road-construction supervisor and part-time deputy sheriff, waving a shotgun, barked: “Get off this property or I’ll blow your goddamn heads off, you sons of bitches.”
Calling 17-year-old Sales “a black bitch,” she recalls, Coleman, “aimed his shotgun and Jon pulled me back.” Coleman fired. Daniels absorbed such a blast from so close that his body was practically torn in two. Morrisroe turned away to help Bailey flee, and was shot in the back. Sales and Bailey ran to Father Morrisroe, “because he was crying for water in that hot sun,” Sales remembers. But Coleman “was swinging his shotgun and telling us that if we didn’t get away from Richard’s body we would also be killed.”
The women fled. Fortunately, a black doctor with combat experience saved Father Morrisroe’s life, removing his lung and spleen in an 11-hour operation. It took two years before Morrisroe could walk again—and he still feels pain daily.
Martin Luther King said Daniels had performed “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” “He walked away from the king’s table,” Sales, who became an academic, marveled years later. “He could have had any benefit he wanted, because he was young, white, brilliant, and male.”
The locals proved so resistant—even to releasing Daniels’s body for burial back home—that President Lyndon Johnson intervened. Meanwhile, Coleman, claiming self-defense, had told state troopers: “I just shot two preachers.” The local prosecutor indicted him for manslaughter, not murder. Even Alabama’s attorney general feared a “whitewash.” “COLEMAN TRIED AMONG FRIENDS,” the progressive Southern Courier magazine reported, archly observing that the AG “discovered… how things are done in that rural county.” Indeed, despite a population of four blacks for every white in the county, the jury was all-white, and all exonerated Coleman. “I would shoot them both tomorrow,” Coleman insisted years later. After all, they were “outsiders from the North.”
Today, America’s Colemans are disgraced, while people like Daniels are canonized. The ESCRU launched a campaign, Operation Southern Justice, to integrate Southern juries. Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the Episcopal Church added Jonathan Daniels to the Church Calendar, marking his martyrdom every Aug. 14.
Daniels’s call remains relevant, his work unfinished. We need whites feeling black, Christians identifying Muslim, Arabs understanding Jews—brave individuals embracing those whom their tribe oppresses.
And we need “militant saints” who cannot “stand by in benevolent dispassion” awaiting progress. We need activists, willing to fight for the good Jonathan Daniels embodied in his short, meaningful life as passionately as others advance evil.