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Remembering Jonathan Daniels - the white seminarian martyred in the cause of black rights

Posted on: July 30, 2015 3:44 PM
Jonathan Daniels is laid to rest
Photo Credit: Episcopal Cafe
Related Categories: Jonathan Daniels, USA

[ACNS] In January 2000, Barack Obama made history when he became the first black man to take the office of President of the United States of America. It was a momentous and remarkable occasion – and all the more so because when he was born in 1961, many black Americans couldn’t even vote, yet alone imagine that the country would one day have a black president.

It is hard for younger generations outside the USA to comprehend that as recently as 50 years ago, not only were many black Americans denied the right to vote; they were also prevented from shopping in many stores which had implemented “whites only” policies.

The civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King encouraged people to join in protests in Alabama, one of the places most affected by racial segregation. He organised marches from the town of Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.

One of the people who took up Dr King’s call was Jonathan Daniels – a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School (ETS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On 14 August 1965, Daniels was with a group of 29 protestors who were picketing “whites only” stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama. All were arrested and taken to the nearby town of Hayneville. A group of five juveniles were released the next day but the others, including Daniels, were held in custody until 20 August, when they were released.

While they waited for transport to take them back to Fort Deposit, Daniels, along with Father Richard Morrisroe, a white Roman Catholic priest and two black female activists – 17-year-old Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey – went  to one of the local shops to buy some drinks.

The Varner's Cash Store was one of the few shops in the area that didn’t impose a “whites only” policy; but as they approached the store they were blocked by volunteer Special Deputy Tom Coleman who threatened the group. 

Coleman pointed his shotgun at Ruby Sales; but before he could fire his shot, Daniels pushed the girl to the ground and shielded her – taking the full force of the shot. He was killed instantly. Father Morrisroe and Joyce Bailey ran away from the scene, but Coleman fired another shot, hitting Morrisroe in the back causing severe injuries.

There was largescale public outcry over the shooting; and deep shock that a white unarmed trainee priest could be shot and killed by a policeman for protecting an unarmed girl. Coleman was charged with manslaughter but claimed self-defence and was cleared by the all-white jury.

Describing the incident, Dr Martin Luther King said that “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

The Episcopal Church in the United States designated Jonathan Myrick Daniels as a martyr in 1991 – one of 15 martyrs recognised by the Church since the start of the 20th Century.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death and a series of events is taking place to commemorate his sacrifice.

Earlier this year some of Daniels’ contemporaries at ETS joined ordinands and seminarians from across the Anglican Communion for a memorial service in Canterbury Cathedral – Daniels is commemorated in the cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time.

“Jonathan Daniels was studying for the priesthood when he was murdered in the cause of justice for African Americans,” the former Bishop of Worcester in the C of E who studied with Daniels at the ETS, the Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby, told ACNS.

TEC_Jonathan _Daniels

Jonathan Daniels 1965

“With us, his fellow-students, he sang Magnificat in the seminary chapel, and he heard it as a call to put himself at risk. That was certainly a life-changing experience for us who knew him.

“It makes his martyrdom a gift for the Episcopal Church and more widely for the Anglican Communion.

“That’s why a group of us who had been his fellow students and an international group of today’s Anglican seminarians assembled in the Chapel in Canterbury to honour him and reflect.

“At a time when racial injustice continues Jonathan is an example and inspiration for Anglicans today.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, sent a letter to Daniels’ ETS contemporaries at the service. In it, he said: "Fifty years is a long time in human life, but is comparatively recent in history.

"The changes that have come about in racial attitudes in those fifty years are radical," he said. "Of course we would be foolish to be complacent, and the witness of Jonathan Daniels demands that we should not be so.

"Indeed, how can we be complacent when recent events in which unarmed people have been shot dead by police officers have provoked widespread protest? Yet in God's time we can see not only the rightness of the cause for which Jonathan died, but also how this costly witness has been part of the reason that change has happened, and eyes have been opened to appalling justice."

A number of events will be held in the USA next month, including during the weekend of 14-16 August when the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama will celebrate Daniels’ life, beginning at St John’s and concluding at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma.

The co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Morris Dees Jr, will give a speech at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery at 5.30 pm on Friday 14 August.

On 15 August, the annual pilgrimage march honouring Daniels will begin at the Courthouse Square in Hayneville at 11.00 am, moving to the old county jail where Daniels and the others were detained before continuing to the former site of Varner’s Cash Grocery Store where the shooting took place.

The building has since been demolished; but a commemorative historical marker will be dedicated at the site during this year’s march. 

The procession will then return to the Courthouse Square for prayer at a memorial erected in his honour by his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute; before concluding at the Courthouse with a service of Holy Communion in the courtroom where Coleman was tried and acquitted.

The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop-Elect, the Rt Revd Michael Curry – the first black person to be elected to that position – will preach a sermon during the service.