At The Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage

Jonathan Daniels Historical Marker

Jonathan Daniels Historical Marker

Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who came to Selma in 1965 in response to a call from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He wanted white clergy to come to Selma and be part of the fight for civil rights.  Dr. King sought their participation in order to help demonstrate that the fight for voting rights was a cause with which everyone should be concerned, not only the disenfranchised. .

Jonathan Daniels was from Keene, NH.  He had graduated from VMI and was pursuing studies for the priesthood at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.  He came to Selma and worked in Dallas and Lowndes Counties helping people of color register to vote.  For doing this work, we was arrested in Fort Deposit and taken to the county seat of Hayneville where he was jailed along with a number of other civil rights workers both white and black for six days.  When he was released, he and three others  when to a store to buy a cold drink.  They were met by Tom Coleman, Sr., a volunteer deputy  sheriff who was also an engineer for the Alabama Highway Department, indicating I assume that he had a college education.  When Coleman leveled a shotgun at Ruby Sales, a seventeen year old, black female civil rights worker, Daniels covered her with his body and took a near pointblank shotgun blast.  He died instantly.  He was only twenty-six.

My son and I attended the Jonathan Daniel Pilgrimage sponsored by the Diocese of Alabama.  Hayneville is a town that was doomed to dwindle.  Economic forces have shrunk this county and this town with every successive census.  What an unlikely place for a native of New Hampshire to die.  The unlikely quality of this place is exaggerated by the presence of motor coaches, church busses and expensive cars of the people who come from all over Alabama, from New Hampshire, from VMI and from several Episcopal seminaries to pay homage to the young man who put himself in peril to help people access that most basic of rights and who literally put himself in the line of fire to save a life.

Working with vulnerable people and people in trouble takes one to unsuspected places and in unfamiliar settings.  When I went to law school at age twenty-three, I did not think that I would be spending time in jails, but that is where I have found myself in the last twenty years.  Since I began defending capital cases about twelve years ago, I have been in the homes of people whose homes are vastly different from the one in which I grew up.  I have come to learn about the effects on children of parents who are alcoholics, drug abusers and perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.   I have also learned about the effects of generational poverty, illiteracy and the way that educational institutions fail vulnerable children.

By taking note of these unsuspected places and unlikely situations in which I have been, I do not mean to compare myself to Jonathan Daniels or anyone else we might see as courageous.  Jonathan Daniels was murdered.  By contrast, I have been able to grow into a middle-aged, mid-career lawyer with life experiences that have deepened by appreciation for the diverse human frailties and my own white privilege and the privileges of education.  Before I knew these things, I had easy answers about how society should respond to those who had committed crimes and those who had failed to meet with success in one form or another.  When you know, you are responsible for what you know.

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