Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage
“I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.” The Jon Daniels Story, ed. William J Schneider, Seabury Press, NY, 1967; 67-20940.
Today, the second Saturday in August, people from all over the country will be assembling at 11 o’clock in Hayneville, Lowndes Country, Alabama, to remember the death of an Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Myrick Daniels on August 20, 1965, as he was protecting an African American teenage girl named Ruby Sales. The pilgrimage starts at the court house where a trial lasting less than an hour found the man who murdered Jonathan not guilty. It moves to the place where previously there was a small country store where Jonathan was shot. The 22 year old pilgrimage then moves back to the courthouse for Eucharist where the bread and the wine are consecrated on an altar that had previously been the judge’s bench for that 1965 sham trial.
Bishop Russell Kendrick of the Diocese of Central Gulf Coast reminded us last year that this march remembering the death of the twenty-six-year-old Daniels took place on the same day as the disastrous march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia a year ago. The similarities are sometimes too much to bear, remembering that we are still stuck in a place where we were three quarters of a century ago about human rights and recognizing who is our neighbor.
Daniels took a leave from Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after he heard Martin Luther King Jr call for students to join him to march in Selma, Alabama, to support the civil rights movement. He had been moved by singing the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, in Evening Prayer, especially the words, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek.”
Jon devoted many of his Sundays in Selma to bringing small groups of black high school students to church in an effort to integrate the local Episcopal church. They were seated but scowled at. Many parishioners openly resented their presence and put their priest squarely in the middle.
In May, Jon went back to seminary to take examinations and complete other requirements. In July he returned to Alabama, where he helped to produce a listing of local, state, and federal agencies and other resources legally available to persons in need of assistance.
On Friday, August 13, Jon and others went to the town of Fort Deposit to join in picketing three local businesses. On Saturday they were arrested and held in the county jail in Hayneville for six days until they all received bail. After their release on Friday, August 20, four of them went to purchase sodas at a local country store and were met at the door by a special county deputy with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, the construction worker who was a part time deputy aimed the gun at a seventeen year-old young black girl in the party, Ruby Sales, Jon pushed her out of the way and was killed instantly.
Ruby went on to attend the same seminary as Daniels and now heads the SpiritHouse Project in Atlanta, a program using art, spirituality and education to bring about racial economic and social justice.
When we sing or say, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, remember Jonathan Myrick Edwards and Ruby Sales and how this canticle changed their lives.
Is there something in that song that resonates with each of us as well?
Daniels died on August 20th but is remembered on the day of his arrest, August 14th.
Book of Common Prayer, 119.