Fifty years ago today VMI graduate and Episcopal theological student Jon Daniels was murdered in Hayneville, Alabama.
A New Hampshire native, Daniels spent much of the spring and summer of 1965 working in Selma, Alabama’s voter registration campaign. While picketing racially discriminatory businesses in Ft. Deposit on August 14, he was one of a group of protestors arrested and transported to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. In wretched living conditions, Daniels labored for the better part of a week to keep up the group’s spirits, leading his fellow prisoners in prayer and hymn singing. An Episcopal group offered to post bail for Daniels. He declined; there wasn’t enough money to free all the prisoners. He would remain with his colleagues.
Unexpectedly and ominously, the prisoners were released on August 20 without posting bail. Turned out on the street, they were alone and without transportation to safety.
Tired, dirty, and hungry, four members of the group walked one block to the Varner Cash Store to buy sodas. Seventeen year-old Tuskegee student Ruby Sales led, followed by Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and Joyce Bailey. They were met at the door by a highway employee and unpaid special sheriff’s deputy armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He cursed Sales and pointed his weapon at her. Daniels pushed her to the ground, shielding her from the subsequent blast. As Morrisroe and Bailey fled, a second round tore into the young priest’s back. Severely wounded, he would survive. Daniels died instantly.
Martin Luther King Jr. called his sacrifice “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”
Sam Waterston narrates a documentary tribute to Jon Daniels’ life. Near its conclusion is a chilling interview with Daniels’ killer, Tom Coleman. Asked if he would change anything if he went through the same experience again, he replied: “I wouldn’t have changed a bit. If the same thing happened in the morning that happened that day, I would shoot them both tomorrow.” Acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white male jury after two hours of deliberation, he lived another 35 years in Hayneville until his death at age 86.
After dinner in Georgia last week with one of Daniels’ VMI classmates, Lynne and I drove to Hayneville. Friends of VMI placed a monument in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse.
Sadly, the Cash Store was torn down last year. The asking price for the property proved too high for those who wished to preserve it. When it became apparent the building would be demolished, individuals sought to obtain the steps upon which Daniels died. These too were destroyed and a civil rights landmark lost to history. The picture below shows the new construction on the site.
The white X below is on an adjacent piece of property, about 12′ from where Daniels fell. A monument will be placed there to remember the seminarian who laid down his life for his friend.
Jonathan Daniels’ story of Christian honor and courage must never be forgotten.
For more information about Jon Daniels, see Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 and Charles W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.