By Tim Bean
*An article dedicated to my friend—and website co-owner—Reverend Nicholas Orange, whose friendship, faith, and bureaucratic mastery have restored thousands of lives across Indiana. Nick, that Oxford comma’s for you.
On August 2nd, 1965, the Civil Right Movement tore the veil that Jim Crow had draped over the American South since the Civil War.
Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 , which allowed for swift and sweeping federal intervention when lawful American citizens were prevented or “discouraged” from participating in elections, a tactic that had allowed several Southern states to disenfranchise its black voters with impunity for many years. It was a proud moment for America and Americans everywhere…whether they liked it or not.
For Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian in the Episcopal Church and civil rights activist, August 2nd was the culmination of months spent tirelessly securing the voting rights of disenfranchised Southern blacks. The bill’s passage wasn’t the end of his labor by any means, just the first victory in a long war for American (and human) decency.
Less than three weeks later, he would be dead, gunned down while trying to buy a cold drink on a hot day in the town of Hayneville, Alabama. Jonathan Daniels was 26.
A bright and studious young man, Daniels left the Virginia Military Institute as his class valedictorian in 1961 and then studied at Harvard University, majoring in English literature. By 1962, after enduring several family tragedies, including the passing of his father, Daniels decided his true calling was becoming ordained in the Episcopal Church. Daniels began studies at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1963.
After two years of study, his conscience could no longer simply watch the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement on news broadcasts. He and several friends traveled down to Selma, Alabama, to join Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery marches. Despite the palpable personal danger, he returned to Alabama again and again through the year, finally receiving permission from the seminary to spend most of a semester there in independent study.
Working to near exhaustion, Daniels tutored school children, escorted black churchgoers to service at Selma’s Episcopal church. For a young and idealistic seminarian, that betrayal must have been the most heartbreaking, because Selma’s Episcopal church was very clear it wanted no part of integration. He canvassed governmental agencies in the city and helped black citizens navigate the long, hostile terrain of red tape (in life, you learn a kind bureaucrat can do more good than any dozen charities).
With his help, hundreds of Selma citizens registered to vote, found gainful employment and received needed assistance, all in just a few short months. We can only cringe and imagine the heaps of nightmarish abuse thrown at Daniels from Selma’s pro-segregation population.
After the Voting Rights Act passed, Daniels continued his good work, leaving Selma to assist the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the nearby town of Fort Deposit in Lowndes County, which had several stores and buildings which proudly (and illegally) proclaimed they were WHITES ONLY.