The Death and Triumph of Civil Rights Hero Jonathan Daniels
On August 2nd, 1965, the Civil Rights Movement tore the veil Jim Crow had draped over the American South since the Civil War.
Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, promising swift and sweeping federal intervention when lawful American citizens were “discouraged” from participating in elections, a tactic that had allowed several Southern states to disenfranchise its black voters 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 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 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 ordination 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 and escorted black churchgoers to service. For a young and idealistic seminarian,an unfriendly church must have been heartbreaking: 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 (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. 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, where several stores and buildings proudly (and illegally) proclaimed they were WHITES ONLY.
Lowndes County had long since been a notorious name for members of the Civil Rights Movement. Its economy had been reliant on cotton since the Civil War, and the county’s white minority had subjected its black citizenry to a century of abuse afterwards. Seventeen lynchings occurred in the county, including the infamous murder of Jim Cross, a black man who spoke out against a recent lynching. In bloody retaliation, the rabid Lowndes County mob killed Jim Cross, his wife, his son and his daughter.
Despite being the demographic majority in the county, black residents had little recourse against the racial violence; they were kept from voting through hefty poll taxes, literacy tests, and bodily harm to themselves and their loved ones. They were barred from public office and even from jury duty. These blanket tactics of manipulation and terror were very effective.
In 1965, of the thousands of black residents in the county, not a single one was registered to vote. Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, years passed before the terrifying specter of racial violence dissipated from Lowndes County.
Jonathan Daniels, a well-educated young man who could have stayed in the upperclass comforts of Cambridge, Massachusetts, willingly descended into this nightmare.
Less than three dozen participated in the protest, and Fort Deposit’s deputies arrested the lot for “disturbing the peace”, transporting them to the Hayneville jail a few miles away. County authorities kept them jailed with no air conditioning, despite the sweltering heat of August in Alabama. Daniels could easily have afforded the $100 bond, but the protestors had agreed earlier that either they were all released or none were. The jail was little more than scraps of food, spoonfuls of water and a concrete floor…plus the collected abuse of the courthouse jail’s officers.
Six days after their incarceration, they were suddenly released. No reporters or fellow activists welcomed their release or sang their praises. The exhausted group waited outside the jail in the August afternoon for a ride back to Selma.
The thirsty group spotted a nearby open convenience market, Varner’s Cash Store. Since they had purchased food safely at that store before their arrest, they decided cold sodas were in order. The four—Daniels, 17-year-old black activist Ruby Sales, another female activist and a Catholic priest— were beyond thirsty and, advertisements be damned, there’s few things more satisfying than an ice cold Coca-Cola after days in a boiling concrete box.
Just as the group entered the store, a middle-aged man with jug ears and thinning hair named Thomas Coleman stepped before them, ordering them to leave. A holstered pistol hung casually from his belt. The pinned badge drooping from his shirt signified he was a special deputy, unpaid, untrained, yet given legal and lethal authority by Lowndes County.
In his hands he held a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, its two barrels as black and wide as a sewer pipes.
The four exhausted protestors froze in front of the terrifying armed man. Coleman trained the shotgun barrels on Ruby Sales.
Only seconds had passed since they stepped in, but that was all the warning Coleman felt they deserved. His trigger finger tightened.
“Bitches,” Coleman growled, “I’ll blow your brains out.”
With the shotgun aimed solidly on the terrified teenage Ruby Sales only a dozen feet away, Lowndes County Deputy Thomas Coleman squeezed the trigger.
If you wanted proof of the murderous self-righteousness in “Bloody Lowndes”, Coleman provided all you’d need in that single moment— a deputized individual representing Lowndes County itself, firing a 12-gauge shotgun without warning or justification at an unarmed teenage girl who just wanted a cold drink on a hot day.
Then Jonathan Daniels stepped in front of Ruby Sales and pushed her to the ground.
His heroic action was so quick even Ruby didn’t know what happened. She thought the shotgun had knocked her to the ground and that she was as good as dead.
The shotgun roared in the small store. The salty stench of gunpowder filled the room.
No one can know Jon Daniels’s thoughts in that impossibly short second. For Daniels, the chances are his action was as instinctual to him as smiling at a child, bowing his head in prayer…or wanting a cold drink on a hot day. It was instinct, a sacrifice made selflessly and heroically.
The shotgun blast struck Daniels on the right side of his chest, just over his heart. The young man was catapulted off his feet and into the air, where he landed half-in and half-out of the doorway. He was dead in seconds.
The other two protestors, one a black activist, the other a white Catholic priest, ran just as Coleman leveled the shotgun at them.The priest shoved the other activist to the ground out of harm’s way just as Coleman fired again, hitting the priest in his lower back and knocking him to the ground.
Then it was silence.
Coleman prodded Daniels and said, “This one’s dead.” Then he sauntered over to the priest and seeing the man grimace from his torn and bleeding back, said, “This one ain’t.”
Then Coleman walked away. A full hour would pass before an ambulance arrived. The priest survived, but Daniels was immediately declared dead.
Word spread. Violence against these activists was nothing new in 1965, but even a jaded public was shocked by the cold-blooded arrogance of someone blasting away at unarmed protestors who had just been thirsty.
Readers and viewers grew even more incensed when they learned of Daniels’s thoughtless bravery and sacrifice. Media outlets followed the trial of Thomas Coleman in the Lowndes County Courthouse, where Daniels had been imprisoned only a short time before. The trial would prove to be a kangaroo court, in reverse.
Citing Coleman as “acting in his official capacity as a peace officer,” Judge T. Werth Thagard lessened the charge from murder to manslaughter. The public recoiled. Alabama’s attorney general attempted to intervene, simply to postpone the trial so the wounded priest, then recovering in Chicago from a six-hour surgery, could return and testify against Coleman. Judge Thagard refused the postponement, then removed the Alabama attorney general from the case. The trial commenced with an all-white jury judging one of their own, accused of murdering an “outside agitator.”
The well-connected Coleman, who had several family members in prominent county positions, insisted the entire incident was simple self-defense, and that Daniels had been carrying and brandishing a knife (despite his just being released from county custody). The priest had been carrying a gun, Coleman said. No knife or gun was found. The county prosecutor made no secret of simply going through the motions of a trial, and screamed at Ruby Sales, his own witness, during her testimony.
He was friendly with the well-liked Coleman, and the courthouse was packed with his friends, coworkers and family. By Judge Thagard’s order, black witnesses and supporters were forced to stand outside the courthouse, listen to the trial and wait to be called in. The testimony of the two actual witnesses was ignored, but the testimony of several white witnesses, most of whom never saw the incident, were readily accepted by the jury.
Jury deliberation took only two hours and surprised almost no one. Not guilty. Coleman went home a free man, silently celebrated in “Bloody Lowndes.” He would live in Haynesville the rest of his life, dying in 1997 at the age of 86.
Daniels’s death seems a tragedy from start to finish. Calling it a miscarriage of justice would be an understatement. In fact, the attorney general Judge Thagard had removed from the case immediately called the subsequent trial the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement.”
Coleman lived and died a cruel, forgettable life, never leaving the cocoon of his hometown, and playing dominoes in the shelter of the courthouse that had erased his injustice. Thomas Coleman will only be remembered for a deed as putrid as the contents of his soggy casket.
How will Jonathan Daniels be remembered?
—When asked by a reporter about the incident in Haynesville, Martin Luther King Jr. grew very quiet, letting a long beat pass before answering. When he did, he spoke as softly as a bedtime prayer: “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels…”
—Acclaimed sculptor Walter Hancock dedicated his sculpture The Garden of Gethsemani to Daniels in 1966.
—In 120 years, the Episcopal Church has only recognized 15 martyrs. In 1991, Jonathan Daniels became one of them.
—Two Episcopal diocese hold annual pilgrimages to Haynesville to commemorate Daniels’s selfless act.
—His hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, dedicated an elementary to their most celebrated son.
—In 1998, the Virginia Military Institute created the annual Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award.
—The Southern Poverty Law Center added his image to those of 39 other martyrs on their Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
—The United Methodists have included Jonathan Daniels on its calendar of saints.
—The Washington National Cathedral added a sculpture of Daniels on the cathedral’s Human Rights Porch.
—Books, films, plays, and countless articles have sung the song of Jonathan Daniels, a song that remains as poignant now as it did fifty-four years ago.
—And his greatest triumph: Ruby Sales
She would emerge from the incident physically healthy but emotionally scarred. Other than testifying at Coleman’s trial, Sales refused to speak for seven months after Daniels’s murder.
Eventually she would emerge from the tragedy stronger than ever, attending Daniels’s own seminary in Cambridge and committing her life to social work. Today, she is a renowned human rights activist and speaker, and runs an inner-city mission in Washington D.C called The SpiritHouse Project.
She dedicated the mission to Jonathan Daniels.
Would You Like to Learn More?
Here’s a priceless resource I discovered: A collection of documents including accounts from of Daniels’s murder from several witnesses, local articles defending Coleman’s actions, and memos from the SNCC. For any fan of historically-timely primary resources, you won’t be disappointed.