Want to remember a real martyr? Learn about Daniels

Published 12:03 am Saturday, June 20, 2015

By the Rev. Cindy Howard

Earlier this year as you watched the commemorations of events in Selma 50 years ago, perhaps you have heard the names Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, and Jonathan Daniels.

These four individuals were civil rights activists in Alabama, and all of them lost their lives between February and August of 1965 in the fight to secure voting rights and a fuller measure of freedom for African-Americans in the state.

A Baptist deacon, a Unitarian Universalist laywoman, a Unitarian Universalist pastor, and an Episcopal seminarian – all were people of faith.

As an Episcopal priest, I have found special inspiration in the life of Jonathan Daniels, who was a student at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., in preparation for ordination as a priest.

In March 1965, Jonathan answered the call to come to Alabama to join the movement for voting rights in Selma. He then decided to stay in Selma working to register voters, to help integrate the Episcopal Church in Selma, to tutor children, and to help poor people in the area.

On Aug.14, 1965, Jonathan was one of 29 protesters who were arrested while picketing “whites-only” stores in Fort Deposit and then transported to the county jail in Hayneville.

On Aug. 20, after they were released, Jonathan, a Roman Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and two African-American women walked to a store to buy a cold soft drink.

They were greeted there by Tom Coleman, who threatened them and leveled his shotgun at one of the women.

Jonathan pushed her aside and caught the full blast of the gun.

He was killed instantly. Father Morrisroe was also shot and critically wounded, as he and the other young woman ran away.

Coleman claimed self-defense and was acquitted of manslaughter charges in Jonathan’s death.

Upon learning of Daniels’ murder, Martin Luther King Jr., stated “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

At a requiem Mass at Washington’s Church of the Atonement the Rev. Malcom Boyd summed up Jonathan’s life in this way, “Jonathan Daniels was the most alive young man in the Church I have met…he was one person who was not afraid of getting involved.”

In this year of 50th anniversary commemorations of civil rights events, I invite you to take part in the annual Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville on Sat., Aug. 15.

We will remember the courageous acts of Jonathan and other civil rights martyrs, and we will be reminded that reconciliation is possible as we share communion in the same courtroom where Tom Coleman was acquitted of Jonathan’s murder.

– Cindy Howard is the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church