A half century ago, many African American citizens, among multiple daily indignities of racial inequality, 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 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, born on March 20, 1939, in Keene, New Hampshire, was a valedictorian of the Virginia Military Institute, 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 then Episcopal Theological Seminary, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In March 1965, Daniels joined a weekend march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Later, he took part in efforts to integrate the local Episcopal Church by inviting black folk to share in worship.
Returning to school for the end of semester exams, Daniels revisited Alabama in July. 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. Released on August 20, whilst awaiting transportation, 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.
The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, 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.”
Paul did not believe that Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection were deficient, thus, requiring completion by the addition of Paul’s afflictions endured during his ministry. Nor did Paul believe that to take up the cross and follow Jesus one necessarily, literally must die. Rather because of the Spirit-given mystical union between Jesus and his followers, Paul believed 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 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.”
© 2021 PRA
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 Colossians 1.24
3 thoughts on “Jonathan Myrick Daniels – A Modern Christian Martyr”
Thank you, Fr. Paul. I remember when C. returned from the pilgrimage to AL (on the anniversary of Daniels’ martyrdom) in which all 1st year seminary students at Sewanee participated. C. told me Daniels’ story and how humbling it was for him to stand where Daniels stood on that day. I was moved to tears. Thank you for telling his story. I hope it is shared again and again.
I appreciate so much the opportunity to read your account of Jonathan Myrick’s love, loyalty, and sacrifice for the Gospel of Jesus and for the sake of Ruby Sales’ life today. I have somehow not very consciously encountered his story before and never been aware that August 14 is the remembrance day for such a human being. Recently I find my eyes being opened to all sorts of things I have failed to see and to mark in my life, and I thank you deeply that you are so active in bringing my awareness to numerous such people and events.
Today happens to be Ted’s and my 44th wedding anniversary, and I am humbled and grateful that a significant day for us coincides with the remembrance of Jonathan Myrick’s ultimate devotion to God’s kin-dom of love (as you, once again, have taught me to think of it). May all of us in this fraught world become more and more aware that there are those who have and do choose to LIVE (and sometimes to die) as Jesus modeled and called all humanity to do. May we become more and more aware of the simple, radical, necessary vision impelling such devotion and love.
Thank you once again for your quiet witness and guidance to history and to what faith actually means as it is lived out in the world rather than simply pronounced.
With my gratitude and much love, dear friend,
Ah, my beloved sister, please accept our – Pontheolla’s and my – belated, yet nonetheless sincere, congratulations to you and Ted on the occasion of your celebration of your marriage and your entry into your new year of your love of life and your life of love! Brava! Carry on, beloved friends, carry on! And, please, share our love with Emilia.
And I love these your words — “…what faith actually means as it is lived out in the world rather than simply pronounced” — which will become a mantra for me. For so it is that we, humans (and, oh, this is so true of me!), oft more readily give voice to a thing, a reality, a virtue, a calling than to live it out via our given apparatuses of heart and hand in action.