For those who engage in the common struggle for Justice, an invaluable grace comes from getting to know new friends similarly engaged — and equally willing to speak with more than words.
Thus, it has been a great grace to get to know folks like Alice Walker personally as well as through her writings — including some new ones. In one recent article, Alice addressed her reasons for joining the other 49 of us by putting her body on the line in sailing with “The Audacity of Hope,” the U.S. boat to Gaza. She wrote:
“There is for me an awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the South in our time of need. I am especially indebted to Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who heard our calls for help — our government then as now glacially slow in providing protection to non-violent protestors — and came to stand with us.
“They got as far as the truncheons and bullets of a few ‘good ol’ boys’ of Neshoba County, Mississippi, and were beaten and shot to death along with James Cheney, a young black man with formidable courage who died with them. So even though our boat will be called ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ it will fly the Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner flag in my own heart.”
As for me, I will be flying in my own heart the flag of Jonathan Daniels, a Danforth Graduate Fellow of 1961, with whom my Fordham ’61 college classmate Brian Daley, S.J., author Palmer Parker, and I spent a week of Danforth Fellow orientation on the shore of Lake Michigan in September 1961. Four years later, Jonathan was dead. Here’s some of the rest of the story:
On Aug. 13, 1965, Jonathan Daniels, in a group of 29, went to picket whites-only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit, Alabama. All were arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. Five juvenile protesters were released the next day. The rest of the group was held for six days; they refused to accept bail unless everyone was bailed.
Finally, on Aug. 20, the prisoners were released without transport back to Fort Deposit. After release, the group waited by a road near the jail. Jonathan with three others — a white Catholic priest and two black protesters — went down the street to get a cold soft drink at Varner’s Grocery Store, one of the few local stores that would serve nonwhites.
They were met at the front by Tom L. Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department and unpaid special deputy, who wielded a shotgun. The man threatened the group, and finally leveled his gun at 16-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales to the ground and caught the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly.
The priest, Richard F. Morrisroe, grabbed the other protester and ran. Coleman shot Morrisroe, wounding him in the lower back. Coleman was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter charges by an all-white jury.
Richmond Flowers, Sr., the then-Attorney General of Alabama, described the verdict as representing the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement.”
Coleman died at age 86 on June 13, 1997, without having faced any further prosecution.
Jonathan Daniels, my friend who died way too young, was no stranger to the South. He had lived in Kentucky and Arkansas as a child. More important, he was educated at Virginia Military Institute, a military college whose history and tradition were inextricably bound with those of the South. He ultimately won the highest tribute from his classmates by being elected valedictorian of his class.
As a Danforth Graduate Fellow, Jon first chose to attend Harvard University to study English literature, but had long felt a desire to enter parish ministry. After a year at Harvard, he was admitted to the Episcopal Theological School. His subsequent involvement with the civil rights movement followed as a logical extension of his beliefs and faith tradition.
His considerable knowledge of the South was an invaluable help to him and to those with whom he worked to bring some Justice down that way.
In a remarkable paper, which Jonathan wrote during his first stay in Selma, he addressed how our motives, as he put it, can be “healthy and free within the ambiguities and tilted structures of a truly fallen Creation.” He added:
“I found very real, if ambiguous confirmation in that beloved community who ate and slept and cursed and prayed in the rain-soaked streets of the Negro ‘compound’ in that first week in Selma.”
At Jonathan’s memorial service, the dean of the Episcopal Theological School, Rev. John B. Coburn, referred to the meaning he said Jonathan’s life and death should have for us:
“Jonathan says he ‘strained’ an ear to hear what he should do. And he heard: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. …’ Then he knew what he must do. And he did it.
“God calls us. Life calls us. Mankind calls us to strain our ears. Wherever we are, in whatever situation we are called to hear what we should do. Then let us do it, for a man has died. God has died. And Love has come back again. So we have hope.”
Justice was the main concern not only of the God of the Hebrew scriptures, but also of Jesus of Nazareth, and (I am gradually learning from instruction on the Quran) the teachings of the Prophet as well.
No Justice was to be had in Lowndes County, Alabama, in the Sixties. Today, Justice cannot prevail in Gaza — and the other occupied territories seized by Israel in the June 1967 war.
The New York Times made an unusually candid revelation in 1982 quoting from a speech in which Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who held that top post from 1977 to 1983, admitted that the 1967 war was carefully pre-planned by Israel.
“In June 1967, we had a choice,” Begin said. “The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
The New York Times, which in those days was a far more independent newspaper than it is now, actually printed Begin’s words, though it has forgotten them since.
And so, all aboard “The Audacity of Hope.” And what grand company I find myself in: Justice friends, old — like Ann Wright, Medea Benjamin, Ken Mayers, Robert Naiman and Kathy Kelly – and new — like Alice Walker, Paki Wieland, Gale Courey Toensing, and dozens of others.
May the spirit of Jonathan Daniels and the spirit of Ruby Sales (herself now a close friend who owes her own prophetic, productive life to Jonathan’s sacrifice in 1965) be with us — together with those of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney.
They are truly models of the enduring strength that comes of daring to hope.