Photos courtesy of Virginia Military Institute Archives
Jonathan Daniels was one of hundreds of clergy who visited Selma to march in the spring of 1965. The white seminarian was one of the few who went back.
He spent the spring and summer living with a black family in public housing, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on registration drives, demonstrations, and political education classes in support of black residents.
Before the end of summer, Daniels lay dead on a street in Hayneville, the county seat of nearby Lowndes County. He was twenty-six, about to start his third year in what is now the Episcopal Divinity Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. August 20 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his death, commemorated with a pilgrimage to Hayneville; and ceremonies in Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Keene. N.H.
After working in Selma, Daniels was eager to face what felt like a final frontier, in Lowndes. There, blacks outnumbered whites four to one, but owned little property and wielded little power. It was called “bloody Lowndes”—for violence against African Americans that was extreme, even by Alabama standards. The name took broader meaning when Ku Klux Klan members killed white civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo just after the march to Montgomery.
Between the end of Reconstruction and 1964, no black citizen had been allowed to register to vote in Lowndes. SNCC field secretary Stokely Carmichael had staked out the territory. On Saturday, August 14, 1965 (when riots were raging in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles), an armed, hostile crowd of whites lined the streets in the Lowndes town of Fort Deposit, population 1,200. They had heard about plans for a protest. While their elders were preoccupied with voter registration, local black teens were intent on getting equal treatment in the town’s commercial establishments and arranged a protest.
Daniels and another white man, visiting Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, joined the African-American youth and SNCC workers on the picket line. The protest lasted a few minutes before police and deputies arrested the group. All were thrown onto a garbage truck and hauled to the county jail in Hayneville. Charge: parading without a license.
An Episcopal group collected bail for Daniels and Morrisroe, but the two men refused to leave unless everyone was released. Nearly a week later, all of the protesters were suddenly let free. In historian Charles W. Eagles’ account, “Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama,” the release came because their lawyer filed a motion to transfer the cases to federal court.
In the nearby courthouse, rumors began to fly among local whites: activists were up to no good; they would create a disturbance. They had disturbed enough when they were in jail, some of them thought, with their singing of freedom songs day and night. Tom Coleman, a state highway supervisor and a regular at courthouse dominoes games, left his game and drove to a store nearby. He told the owner he had come to protect her.
One of the released activists walked to that store for cigarettes and matches. Then Daniels, walking with activist Ruby Sales, followed by Morrisroe and SNCC worker Joyce Bailey, took the same route, to buy refreshments. Daniels reached to open the screen door for Sales, and Coleman was suddenly there, with shotgun and pistol, yelling at them to leave.
Daniels asked whether he was threatening them, then pushed Sales out of the line of fire, taking a shot from Coleman’s twelve-gauge shotgun. He fell back, dead.
Morrisroe and Bailey turned to run. Coleman shot Morrisroe, hitting his back and side. Gloria Larry, another activist, a graduate student from Berkeley, remembers running down the street and knocking frantically on doors for help. No one answered. She took it for a conspiracy of silence among whites, charging: “Everybody knew what had been planned.”
For a moment, Sales thought she was dead. Morrisroe thought he was dead, too. He couldn’t move his legs. An ambulance took him to Montgomery, where a former army surgeon operated on him for eleven hours. He returned to the Chicago area to recuperate.
Meanwhile, Coleman was charged with first-degree murder. A grand jury made up of seventeen white men and one black man, notched it down to first-degree manslaughter (Daniels) and assault and battery (Morrisroe). The priest was unable to travel to testify.
At the trial, Daniels’ character was assailed. It would have been laughable if it weren’t dead serious: He wore red underwear! Had a strange un-American book in his pocket, “The Fanatic” by Meyer Levin! He supposedly kissed the black girl on the mouth! It was bad enough that the two white men had walked alongside black women, as if they were equals. Witnesses testified that the nonviolent activists had weapons, that Daniels had brandished a switch blade and Morrisroe, a pistol. Coleman was found not guilty.
That summer Sales, 17, had finished a year at what is now Tuskegee University. She went on to complete her education at Manhattanville College, Princeton University, and the Episcopal seminary where Daniels studied. She is the founder and director of THE SpiritHouse Project in Atlanta, which uses education and the arts to combat racism and train activists. One of its fellowships is named for Daniels. Next month SpiritHouse plans to release a report on state-sponsored violence against African-Americans.
“I just wonder what kind of man that he’d have become,” says Sales. “I think of what he might have been doing if he was still alive, that he was not given the opportunity to grow into the fullness of his self—as I’ve tried to grow into my fullness.”
Morrisroe left the priesthood in 1972, and is married with two children, one of whose middle name is Jonathan, after Daniels. He still feels pain from his physical wounds of half a century ago.
Gloria Larry, now Gloria House, is a human rights advocate and poet, recently retired as a professor of Humanities and African American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “The presence of white activists in the freedom movement challenged the legacy of the racist South, challenging the very identity of Southern Whites,” she said in Hayneville in 2013.
In the half century since his death, Daniels has become an official martyr of the Episcopal Church, honored in Canterbury Cathedral and memorialized at his alma maters, the Virginia Military Institute and the Episcopal Divinity School. He’s been the subject of two books, a documentary and a play. In Keene, a school is named for him. The Reverend Michael Curry, the first African American to be elected to the position of presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently exhorted about 1,000 people gathered at the murder site to continue to work to change the world.
How to honor the dead, how to address the white supremacy that led to their deaths and so many others? Earlier this summer I asked Steve Schwerner about commemorations for civil rights activists. His brother Mickey was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1964 along with two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Andy Goodman. Steve Schwerner said, “It was flattering, I guess, when the President gave the Medal of Freedom to Mickey, Jim and Andy. I would much rather have Congress re-pass the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court eviscerated.”
All photos courtesy of Virginia Military Institute Archives