Today, August 14th the Episcopal Church commemorates the modern saint Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I’ve been drawn to Daniels since learning about him twenty years ago. Perhaps it’s because at the time of his death, he was only 26 years old, the age I was when I was ordained. Or perhaps, it’s because he spent the last six months of his life working for racial justice in my home diocese of Alabama.
Jon Daniels was born and raised in Keane, New Hampshire. He moved to Virginia after graduating high school to attend VMI and then headed back up north for seminary, studying at what was then called Episcopal Theological School. During his second year of seminary he answered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for clergy and seminarians to come down South to help register members of the Black community to vote.
Jon and several classmates came to Alabama in March 1965 to participate in grassroots Civil Rights work in the Alabama Black Belt, specifically Dallas and Lowndes Counties. Alabamians will tell you the Black Belt got its name because it is the area of Alabama where the soil is as black as night, as compared with the red clay dirt found in the rest of the state. Anything and everything seems to grow in this fertile black soil, so many cotton plantations were established there in the 19th century. Enslaved African Americans tended the cotton at these labor camps, and many of them stayed in the area working as share-croppers and tenant farmers after Emancipation. To this day, the Black Belt’s population is predominantly African American. It is literally the Black Belt of Alabama.
Daniels intended to stay only for a weekend, but soon realized that his heart and soul belonged in the Black Belt. With special permission from his seminary dean, he remained in Alabama, studying on his own, returning to Boston for one week in May to take his exams and return right back to the deep South. During his time in the Alabama, Jon Daniels not only tutored Black children and helped with voter registration, he also tried integrating Episcopal churches in and around Selma. Week after week he brought Black high school students into all white congregations, and week after week he was met with opposition.
On August 14, 1965 Daniels was arrested with several other folks for picketing white only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit. After a brief stint in the local jail, they were transferred to the Lowndes County jail in Hayneville where they remained for a week jam-packed in deplorable conditions. Although plenty of people offered to post bail for Jon, he refused their offers until bail could be paid for everyone.
On August 20, they were released from jail rather suddenly. Four of those released—Jon, Roman Catholic Priest Richard Morrisroe and Black teenagers Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey—walked two blocks to the Cash Grocery Store to buy cold cokes to drink while they waited in the hot August sun for their ride back to Selma. When they approached the store an unemployed highway worker named Tom Coleman appeared at the door equipped with a shotgun. He pointed it straight at the teenagers and told them they were not welcome because of their skin color, and therefore, they should all leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, Coleman pulled the trigger, his gun aimed directly at Ruby. Jonathan Daniels pushed Ruby aside, taking the full blast of the shotgun himself. He fell back onto the steps of the store and died instantly. Jon died a martyr’s death on August 20, 1965. Coleman, on the other hand, pleaded self-defense and was acquitted by an all white jury at the Hayneville Courthouse six months later.
Deep down I wonder if I gravitate toward Jon Daniels’ story because I’m somehow trying to right the wrong doings of fellow Alabamians decades before I was even born. My public school system barely mentioned the Civil Rights Movement and my church never mentioned the Alabama martyrs during my childhood. The efforts of Jon Daniels and so many other workers for justice in the Episcopal Churches in Alabama went completely unacknowledged until fairly recently. Similarly, the leadership of the Diocese of Alabama who openly endorsed segregation went unacknowledged as well.
Five months ago, my fourteen-year-old and I participated in an intergenerational Civil Rights Pilgrimage with his church youth group. Led by author, pastor, and activist, the Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, we visited sacred sites in Alabama that certainly weren’t locations of my childhood school field trips. Along the way, I learned that my son wasn’t learning about these specific events of the Civil Rights Movement like the college aged Freedom Riders, the Birmingham Children’s March, and the lynching Emmett Till. Instead, his Texas school ‘hits the highlights’ like Rosa Parks’ arrest and the bus boycott, and the fact that Southern Black people had more voting rights during Reconstruction than they did in the 1960s.
The two of us spent a lot of time reflecting on our pilgrimage in the weeks following our return home. One thing he talked about was the social shift of what’s acceptable in society today. During the Civil Rights Movement, he noted that racism was both rampant and acceptable. But now, even though racism continues to permeate our society, it’s no longer acceptable. Because of that, people are reluctant to admit their biases, both explicit and implicit. Too many people aren’t doing the hard work of unlearning and relearning like we did on this pilgrimage.
As we celebrate the life and witness of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, take a few moments to read today’s appointed gospel, the Magnificat. Singing Mary’s song at Evening Prayer was the final push Daniels needed to leave seminary and travel to Selma. What racially biased systems in our society need to dismantled? Who are the lowly living around you who need lifting up?
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.