The Death and Triumph of Civil Rights Hero Jonathan Daniels
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.