Daniels with the kids. Photo from Episcopal Church Archives
Jonathan Daniels, born on 20 March 1939, would have turned 80 this week. A doctor's son and small-town kid from Keene, New Hampshire, he attended Virginia Military Institute and Harvard briefly, then entered an Episcopal seminary. In 1965, he followed the call from Dr. Martin Luther King for people of faith to join him in a march to Montgomery after civil rights activists were attacked on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Daniels went to Alabama for what he thought was a few days; instead, he briefly left and returned for the rest of his short life - "The imperative was too clear" - remaining as activist, witness and finally martyr until his cruel death at 26. In these bitter times, writes John Samuel Tieman, let us celebrate Daniels' story, "a history of becoming, of process. He was open to change and growth...an ordinary man who saw great evil and responded with love."
In Selma, Daniels worked on voter registration, tutored black kids, tried to integrate a local church and lived with a black family, the Wests. Rachel West Nelson: “He was a part of our family...He was a part of every black family in Selma in those days." When racists accused him of being a "white nigger," he said he was. When he was refused work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - Stokely Carmichael argued they'd have to spend their time protecting him from the KKK, but later praised Daniels' "abundance of strength that comes from the inside...People realized that with the strength they got from Jon Daniels they had to carry on, they had to carry on" - Daniels joined the Southern Leadership Christian Conference. "Sometimes we confront the posse, and sometimes we hold a child,” he wrote. "Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity... (groping) through the bramble bush of doubt and fear...In this, (it) is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints."
On Saturday, Aug. 14, Daniels and about 20 others were arrested picketing whites-only businesses in Fort Deposit. Transported in a garbage truck, they were thrown into a cell - Carmichael was also there for a fender-bender with white guys - in the sweltering Haynesville Jail. They remained for six days without fans, showers, toilets; Daniels led them in singing hymns and protest songs. On Aug. 20th, they were inexplicably released, though nobody had posted bail. Daniels, a white priest named Richard Morrisroe and two black girls, Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, walked to a local store to buy a soft drink. At the door, Tom Coleman, a white, unpaid "special deputy," barred their entry. Then, shouting "I will blow your brains out," he leveled his shotgun at Sales. Daniels pushed her away, and was killed instantly by the blast. Morrisroe grabbed Bailey and ran with her; Coleman shot him in the back, severely wounding him. Coleman was indicted for manslaughter; he claimed self-defense, and was acquitted by an all-white jury.
After Daniels' funeral, where mourners sang “We Shall Overcome,” his death continued to reverberate. The Virginia Military Institute named a memorial and archway for him - a plaque quotes his 1961 valedictory address wishing classmates "the joy of a purposeful life" - and the Daniels Courtyard features a plaque with MLK's response to his death as “one of the most heroic Christian deeds" during his ministry. They established a Jonathan Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award; in recent years it went to Rep. John Lewis, who said Daniels "helped to bring us to where we are today.” The Episcopal Church has designated Daniels as a martyr; his hometown named a school and trail after him; two Keene professors made a documentary about him; and the 50th anniversary of his murder saw commemorations in Haynesville, D.C., and many Episcopal congregations.
The date was also marked by Ruby Sales, who with passion took up Daniels' "living theology." Just 17 when he died for her, she vividly remembers the terror of jail, the specter of being raped, the support of her mother, "who said to me, 'If not my child, whose child?' Black mothers supported the movement with a tear in one eye and a brown bag with food in one hand." For decades, Sales has kept the world’s “mind stayed on freedom.” Following Daniels' model, she attended Episcopal Theology School (now Divinity School), becoming a renowned theologian and indefatigable civil rights fighter known to many as "Mama Ruby Sales" and "Mother Dr. Sage." A human rights advocate in D.C., she founded The SpiritHouse Project, a non-profit, inner-city mission working for racial, economic and social justice in Daniels' memory, and her work is documented in the National Museum of African American History's Civil Rights History Project.
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She does podcasts, gave a TED Talk with over a million views, and is active on Facebook, offering daily "From my front porch" critiques on Stacey Abrams, white patriarchy, genocide, opioids and, over and over, the white supremacy and systemic racism that is "part of our history." On that 50th anniversary, she said she wept, "not for Jonathan because he answered the call of love and justice (but) for the depths of racism in the 21st century...for 2,000-plus black bodies the police have shot in cold blood...because we have settled to be much less than what we are. I weep because I hear Jonathan crying out in his grave, asking what happened to the dream Ruby?" Still, she insists on hope, citing "the reading of history" by Dr. King: “No lie can last forever.” Most vitally, she owes Jonathan Daniels hope. "I didn’t carry his death as a burden of guilt or as a weight - I carried it as a commitment," she says. "He understood that racism was not something that simply happened to black people. It also happened to white people. His journey south was not only an attempt to understand and connect with the humanity of others - it was also to connect with his own humanity."
Daniels, fellow seminarian Judith Upham and a fellow activist. Photo from Virginia Military Institute
Ruby Sales mugshot at 17
Mama Ruby Sales. Facebook photo