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.