Celebrating Civil Rights Activist
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s profound “I Have A Dream” speech, we should also mourn the loss of four children killed in the Birmingham bombings. NH may seem far away from both events, but one of our own should be celebrated as a hero for his role in those turbulent times. His name was Jonathan Daniels.
According to published accounts, Jon was born in Keene, graduated from Keene High School (my alma mater), and was his class valedictorian at the Virginia Military Institute. He entered Harvard University in 1962, however after attending Easter services at a church in Boston, Jon decided to pursue ordination and entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA.
In March 1965, Jon answered Martin Luther King’s call for clergy and students to go to Selma, Alabama to take part in the March to Montgomery. Jon intended to stay the weekend however he decided that he needed to stay longer. During his time in Alabama, Jon devoted his time integrating the local Episcopal Church, tutoring children, helping the poor apply for aid, and working to register voters.
On August 14, 1965 Jon joined a group of activists who went to New Deposit, Alabama to help register voters, where they were all arrested and jailed by local authorities. On August 20th, Jon was released along with two teenage girls, Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, and a white Catholic priest, Fr. Richard Morrisroe. With no transportation back home, they decided to get a cold drink from a nearby store (that served nonwhites), while deciding what to do next. There they were confronted by Tom Coleman, a highway worker toting a shotgun. He threatened the group and leveled his shotgun at 16 year-old Ruby Sales. Jon pushed Ruby down and took the full blast of the shotgun which killed him instantly, but saved Ruby. Fr. Richard Morrisroe, grabbed Joyce, and ran. In a display of profound cowardice, Coleman shot Fr. Morrisroe in the back as he tried to flee.
Coleman was arrested and pled innocent (claiming self-defense, though none of the activists had weapons). Coleman falsely claimed that Jon pulled a knife on him. Subsequently, an all-white, male jury acquitted Coleman of murdering Jon, and the attempted murder of Fr. Morrisroe.
Nearly a half century later, Jonathan Daniels is celebrated as a martyr by the Episcopal Church. August 14th is commemorated by the Church to celebrate his life of service and his sacrifice in giving his life to save a young girl. On a personal note, my siblings attended the Keene elementary school named in his honor. The Virginia Military Institute commemorated JonÕs life and sacrifice by establishing the Jonathan Daniels’ Humanitarian Award.
Jon’s legacy lives on in the Granite State, as NH put civil and human rights front and center with an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution, and being one of the first states to pass marriage equality.