Jonathan Daniels smoked cigarettes. He liked to drive fast. He liked a good argument. And when he saw something wrong, he tried to stop it.
In 1965, Daniels had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute as class valedictorian. A native of Keene, N.H., he’d returned to New England to study at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass. He intended to join the priesthood.
The Fight for Civil Rights
On Sunday, March 7 of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march of civil rights activists from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery,. the state capital, 54 miles away. They marched to protest Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from voting. Alabama police beat demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two days after the day known as “Bloody Sunday”
Two days after “Bloody Sunday,” protesters tried to cross the bridge again. Jonathan Daniels took a bus from New England to join them. A court had ordered them not to cross the bridge, and King had secretly agreed to turn around at the Pettus bridge.
When the buses that brought him to the town rolled back north, Daniels and a small group of other protesters stayed behind. They felt a need for a greater commitment to eliminating racial segregation than just dropping in for a rally. So Daniels wrote to his college and received permission to remain in Alabama. He could take his exams in June and still continue his studies toward the priesthood.
Daniels spent the next few months living with the West family in Alabama and working to register black voters. Congress was striking down many of the voter registration laws that had historically suppressed the black vote.
Jonathan Daniels Goes To Church
On Sundays, Daniels and a group of fellow protesters attended services at the all-white St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma. They hoped to integrate the congregation. While they were tolerated at the service, their small group of black and white integration supporters were not welcomed.
Jonathan traveled to New England to take his exams in late spring, and returned to Alabama in July. The trip home would be his last. Friends recalled he had no reservations about returning to Alabama because he felt a strong obligation to bear witness to racial segregation there. He wanted to do his part to change it.
Lowndes County in Alabama was probably more dangerous than most places to try to change people’s racist attitudes, even by Alabama standards. Viola Liuzzo, an activist from Michigan, was shot and killed in the area while shuttling protesters from the Selma march. Members of the Ku Klux Klan killed her.
Many lynchings had taken place in Lowndes County in the century after the Civil War, and it had a long history of suppressing the black vote.
On August 14, Daniels and his fellow activists traveled to Fort Deposit to picket several stores that wouldn’t sell to black customers. The protesters, 27 in all, were arrested. Most went to jail in nearby Hayneville on charges of disturbing the peace and parading without a permit. Their bail was set at $100 each. The group agreed that they would all stay in jail until they all got bailed out.
The activists were released from jail on August 20. Most of the protesters began walking toward their homes. But six decided to stop at a market, Varner’s Cash Store, for cold soft drinks. They then planned to make their way back home. They had shopped at the store before, so they felt safe going in.
Jonathan Daniels Not Welcome in Hayneville
However, this time when they entered the store, the civil rights activists were confronted by a man with a shotgun. He ordered them to leave and then pointed the gun at them. Jonathan Daniels shoved Ruby Sales, a fellow protester, down and out of the line of fire. But he left himself exposed. A shotgun blast to the chest killed him, making him the 26th civil rights worker killed in the South. As the remaining five scrambled for cover, the man shot Rev. Richard Morrisroe, Catholic priest from Chicago, in the back.
For the next several minutes, the remaining survivors of the attack tried to rally help, shouting and pounding on doors. But no one came outside.
“We looked back and this white guy who shot us was standing over Jon’s body with his gun like he was daring somebody to do something about it,” Ruby Sales would later recall.
Trial and Acquittal
The man who had killed Jonathan Daniels was Tom Coleman, a 52-year-old highway department worker and part-time deputy sheriff. Coleman was well known in town. His father was a local football hero, for whom the town named its football field. He was quickly arrested and charged with manslaughter.
The justice system in Lowndes County largely answered to itself. The local judge barred the state’s attorney general from stepping in to prosecute the case against Coleman. When the prosecutors asked for a continuance to let Richard Morrisroe recover from his gunshot wounds so he could testify, the court rejected the request.
The trial went ahead in October. Coleman claimed he had shot the two clerics in self-defense.
Coleman’s cousin testified that he had seen a knife in Daniels’ hand and the Morrisroe had something that looked like a pistol. Morrisroe would later confirm he had something in his hand. It was a dime. No knife was ever found.
Deputy Sheriff Joe Jackson testified that Daniels had drawn attention to himself by kissing one of the black women he had been imprisoned with when they were released from jail.
A Nation of Laws
The prosecutor sounded an alarm for the jury: “This is a nation of laws, not men,” he said. “If you decide to throw the law out, we are going to be in for far more trouble than we’ve ever seen.”
After more than an hour of deliberation, the jury, all white, declared Coleman not guilty.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black declined to intervene when activists appealed to the Supreme Court to shut down the courts in Lowndes County. They argued the court systematically excluded women and blacks from the juries.
Across the country, reaction to the jury decision was intense. President Lyndon Johnson promised a federal investigation. Alabama’s attorney general declared the judge’s decision shameful.
Jonathan Daniels, Saint
In Lowndes County, there was far less anger over Jonathan Daniel’s death. “If they had been tending to their own business, like I tend to mine, they’d be living and enjoying themselves today,” County Solicitor Roscoe Perdue told a newspaper.
Today Jonathan Daniels is well-remembered in his hometown of Keene, N.H. There is a school named after him and commemorative memorials throughout town. The Episcopal Church recognizes him as a martyr of the church and commemorates his life each August 14, the day of his arrest.
Ruby Sales, pushed out of the line of fire by Jonathan Daniels, went on to have a long career as a civil rights activist.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like: The Secret History of New England’s Sundown Towns. Image: Lowndes County Courthouse By Altairisfar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17384557. Jonathan Daniels By unknown – Original publication: unknownImmediate source: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/Afro-Anglican_history/exhibit/leadership/daniels.php, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45648799. Varners Cash Store By Richard apple – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24460714. This story was updated in 2022.