The American civil rights activist and divinity student Jonathan Daniels (1939–1965) was murdered in Lowndes County, Alabama, after traveling there to help acquire voting rights for African Americans and integrate local schools, churches, and social institutions. Daniels's killer was acquitted by an all-white jury, a development that helped bring an end to the systematic exclusion of African Americans from juries in the American South.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was known as Jon by both family and friends, and his upbringing in northern New England gave no hint at the path his life would take. He was born in Keene, New Hampshire, on March 20, 1939. His father, Philip Brock Daniels, was a doctor and a member of the local Congregationalist church. During his high school years, Daniels suffered a fall that left him hospitalized for about four weeks, and while confined to bed, he began to think about life beyond the everyday. Once recovered, he joined the Episcopal church and even considered a career as a priest.
The bookish Daniels enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, but he was uncomfortable there. While an undergraduate, he suffered a crisis of religious faith following his father's death, and then his younger sister Emily became seriously ill. He excelled academically and eventually won the respect of his classmates; graduating in 1961, he presented the valedictorian address at the school's graduation ceremony.
A Danforth fellowship enabled Daniels to enroll in the fall of 1961 at Harvard University. His initial plan was to study English literature, but an Easter service at Boston's Church of the Advent drew his thoughts once more toward religious life; an Episcopal biography of Daniels described his reaction to this service as a conversion experience. Deciding to study for the priesthood, he left school and took a job for a year to finance his new direction, unsupported by fellowship funds, and in the fall of 1963 he matriculated at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program normally took three years to complete, and Daniels planned to graduate in 1966.
At the time of Daniels's matriculation, waves of white students from northern college campuses were traveling to the South to support African Americans in attaining the rights guaranteed them by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the law of the land, voting and other rights had to be won state by state and town by town across the region. In March of 1965, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a call for student allies after he and other peaceful demonstrators were attacked by armed police with dogs as they prepared to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. Daniels, attending an Easter service on March 8, heard the minister preach lines from the biblical book of Luke: “He [God] hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” He made the decision then and there to heed King's call and go to Selma; further religious reflections over the next several weeks confirmed him in his decision.
Daniels participated in many demonstrations that were broken up by police, and he kept a diary in which he recorded in detail the conflicts between police and demonstrators. His observations are notable for balancing a crusading spirit with self-criticism; during one argument with a Selma police officer (as quoted on the Lectionary website), he called himself “both defensive and self-righteous” and describe his behavior as “motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance.”
During his time in Selma, Daniels lived with the Wests, an African-American family who opened their doors to northern civil rights workers. In addition to working to register black voters, he led local African Americans in an effort to integrate Selma's Episcopal church. Congregants were often hostile, and while the minister was sympathetic, he was not activist enough for the highly committed Daniels. “He was just a stickler for education and doing the right thing,” recalled Rod West, who, eight when Daniels moved in, shared his memories with a reporter from New Hampshire's Keene Sentinel. “Jonathan was a brave man, very neat, very clean-shaven,” West added, noting that he often stressed the importance of education to the young people he met.
Daniels returned to New England to take his exams and visit his family in Keene in May of 1965, but by July he was back in Alabama. He applied to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the largest African-American student organization in the South, but was turned down; SNCC leaders felt that to protect Daniels from possible Ku Klux Klan attacks would divert resources from other efforts. After accusing the group's leader, Stokely Carmichael, of racism, Daniels befriended the man, and the pair shared a jail cell following Daniels's arrest.
Instead, Daniels signed on with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose president, Dr. King, had scored successes with well-targeted nonviolent protests in Birmingham and other Alabama cities. At first he worked to build a list of resources available from federal, state, and local agencies. Then, on Friday, August 13, Daniels and a group of other activists—both white and African American—traveled to the small town of Fort Deposit to picket local businesses that were treating black customers unfairly and refusing to hire them as employees. Before he left Selma, Daniels visited the West family several times and told the children to study hard in school and to contact him if they needed school supplies. The group that traveled to Fort Deposit had already been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to integrate a local high school.
Several white citizens of Fort Deposit met Daniels and 21 other demonstrators with guns, broken bottles, and makeshift clubs. The SCLC demonstrators were arrested, loaded in a flatbed trash-hauling truck, and transported to the county jail in Hayneville, the county seat. The group spent six days in the jail without access to air conditioning or showers. During this time, Daniels led them in prayer and sang hymns, and he wrote optimistically to his mother about being released after a short time. Bail was posted for Carmichael and some of the other prisoners (who had been arrested after a separate auto accident); they departed, but Daniels and others from his original group agreed that they would not leave until bail was posted for them all.
At that point, on the morning of August 20, jail officials told Daniels and the rest of the group that they were free to go. No one had contacted them about posting bail and no one was there to pick them up, despite their well-publicized organizational affiliations. Jailers refused them the use of a telephone. These unusual steps led some observers to believe that what happened next was the result of a conspiracy. “I'm convinced it was a setup,” Daniels's associate Judith Upham was quoted as saying by the Episcopal News Service.
Those surgeries were still in process when the trial of Coleman began, 40 days after the shooting, the trial judge having declined to postpone proceedings despite the unavailability of the lead witness. After Coleman claimed that he had acted in self-defense, a Lowndes County grand jury indicted him not on murder charges but for manslaughter. Coleman was acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, and jury members shook his hand as the group left the county courthouse. Daniels's mother complained that Alabama officials were resisting transportation of her son's corpse back to New Hampshire, and President Lyndon Johnson ordered his chief civil rights aide to supervise its return.
Although Daniels's is not a household name like other heroes of the civil-rights movement, his death and its aftermath had lasting effects. A coalition of church groups established Operation Southern Justice and filed a lawsuit in Lowndes County targeting the exclusion of African Americans from juries there; this action resulted in what Sandra Wallace described in the Keene Sentinel as a “domino effect” that led to the end of jury segregation (and the exclusion of women from juries) in the South. Reflecting on the incident, Reverend King called Daniels's effort “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” The Virginia Military Institute established a humanitarian award named for Daniels, and the civil-rights activist was recognized by the Episcopal Church as one of its 15 Modern-Day Martyrs.
Eagles, Charles W., Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Schneider, William J., editor, The Jon Daniels Story, Morehouse, 1992.
Wallace, Rich, and Sandra Wallace, Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights, Calkins Creek, 2016.
Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2015.
Keene Sentinel, August 7, 2015; August 16, 2015.
Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ (August 15, 2015), Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Remembering Jonathan Daniels 50 Years after His Martyrdom.”
Lectionary website, http://www.satucket.com/lectionary/ (August 14, 2016), “Jonathan Myrick Daniels.”
National Public Radio website, http://www.npr.org/ (August 10, 2015), Melanie Peeples, transcript of All Things Considered: “50 Years Ago, a White Seminarian Gave His Life to the Civil Rights Movement.”
Virginia Military Institute website, http://www.vmi.edu/ (August 14, 2016), “Jonathan Daniels, Civil Rights Hero.”❑