Jonathan Myrick Daniels – a modern day Christian martyr

A half century ago, many African American citizens, among multiple daily indignities of racial inequality, verily iniquity, suffered the denial of voting rights and the freedom to shop at many commercial enterprises that established and enforced a “whites only” policy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during a particularly fertile and fractious period in the formal Civil Rights Era, joined with others in naming Alabama, a state with an acutely egregious record of race un-relations, as the proverbial ground-zero; the chosen site for prayerfully peaceful, but also potentially explosive prophetic confrontations via public demonstrations. Following the March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” police attacks on marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, King summoned all people of good will, especially clergy and students to take active part in public protests. Jonathan Myrick Daniels answered King’s gospel clarion call.

Jonathan Daniels, VMI 1961 Born March 20, 1939, in Keene, New Hampshire, Daniels was a valedictorian of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Class of 1961, and later a Harvard University graduate student in English literature. Responding to a long-simmering call to the ordained ministry, Daniels, in the fall of 1963, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary (since 1974, renamed Episcopal Divinity School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jonathan Daniels, 1965

In March 1965, Daniels with several seminarians traveled to Alabama to join a weekend march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. He and Judith Upham, a friend and fellow seminarian, missing their bus ride back to Cambridge, rethought their journey, arriving at a shared discernment to spend the remainder of the semester in Alabama.

(On a personal note, I did not know Jonathan Daniels. I do know, love, and admire Judith Upham, a priest, stalwart soul, and valiant civil rights activist of long and faithful service to the church and the world.)

Jonathan Daniels and the West childrenJudith Upham and the West children

In Selma, Daniels and Upham lodged with Alice and Lonzy West and their children, an African American family who made their home a welcome place for “outside agitators”, the white-establishment’s derisive sobriquet for all activists. Among many efforts, they sought to integrate the local Episcopal Church by inviting black folk to share in worship.

In May, Daniels took and passed his end of semester exams. In July, returning to Alabama, he helped to assemble a directory of governmental services for those in need, tutored children, and registered voters. (Not incidentally, on August 2, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing long-prayed federal management and enforcement of the constitutional right to vote for all American citizens.)

On August 14, Daniels and other protesters picketing “whites only” stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama, were arrested and incarcerated in nearby Hayneville. Released on August 20, whilst awaiting transport to Fort Deposit, Daniels, Father Richard Morrisroe, a white Roman Catholic priest, and Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, black civil rights activists, seeking refreshments, approached Varner’s Cash Store, which did not abide by the “whites only” policy. Their path was blocked by Tom Coleman, a volunteer Special Deputy, who aimed his shogun at Sales. Daniels shielded her. Coleman fired. Daniels died instantly. Morrisroe and Bailey ran. Coleman fired again, striking and injuring Morrisroe. Coleman, charged with manslaughter, claimed self-defense. At trial, he was acquitted by an all-white jury.

King adjudged Daniel’s self-sacrifice as “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” In 1991, the Episcopal Church named Daniels a martyr, August 14 being the annual day of remembrance. In this 50th anniversary year of his death, during the weekend of August 14-16, special events will be held in Alabama – among them, a mass pilgrimage to the sites of Daniels’ incarceration and death; the dedication of a memorial in his honor by VMI; and services of worship, at one of which the preacher will be the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop-Elect, the Right Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, the first black person elected to this position.

Michael Bruce Curry

The Apostle Paul, in his 1st century epistle to the Christian community in the Asia Minor town of Colossae, wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.”[1] Paul did not (nor do I, his namesake) believe that Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection were deficient in any way – thus, requiring completion by the addition of Paul’s afflictions encountered and enduring during his ministry – as a pathway to God’s universal and unconditional life of love and justice, now and eternally. Nor did Paul (or this Paul) believe that to take up the cross and follow Jesus one must necessarily and literally die. Rather because of the Spirit-given mystical union between Jesus and his followers, Paul believed (and I believe) that any service and suffering for the sake of the gospel is of the same nature and has the same salvific effect as “Christ’s afflictions.”

Jonathan Myrick Daniels died in saving the life of Ruby Sales. In that singular act of selfless, costly, fatal service, he is an inspiration for all people of good will who, since his time and now, writhe in visceral anguish at the abiding disparities of opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” divided along bright, yet shadowy lines of race, and who, therefore, in daily living, seek to act that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Illustrations: (1) Jonathan Myrick Daniels as a VMI student, (2) in 1965, (3) with some of the West family children; (4) Judith Upham with some of the West family children. (5) The Right Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and Presiding Bishop-Elect of the American Episcopal Church

[1] Colossians 1.24

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Myrick Daniels – a modern day Christian martyr

  1. Paul,

    I’m sure you know that I consider you one of my mentors. One of the things mentors do for me is to provide me with new perspectives and information that I’m unlikely to discover on my own. This post is a fabulous example of just that. I’d never heard of Jonathan Myrick Daniels before reading this, but thanks to you his name is now one I’ll not forget!! Not many people would think of sacrificing their lives the way he did. What an incredible story! I’m thankful that Alabama will be celebrating Jonathan’s life and sacrifice on the 50th anniversary of his death on the 14th of this month. I hope they will publish Bishop-Elect Curry’s sermon from the service, because I’m curious to know how adequate tribute is paid to a martyr!

    Thanks again Paul for giving me great inspiration to continue the fight for racial equality and for sharing a story I’m sorry I didn’t know until today. I’m truly grateful for all that you bring to my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Loretta. Yes, I do know that you consider me one of your mentors. I consider this an honor. What you have shared here about who mentors are and what they do for you is illuminating for me. Thank you for that, too.


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