August 14: 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.” —Jonathan Daniels, quoted in The Jon Daniels Story, William J. Schneider, ed. (The Seabury Press, 1967), p. 67.

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On the second Saturday in August, people from all over the country were assembling at 11:00 a.m. in Hayneville, Lowndes Country, Alabama, to remember the death of an Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels died on August 20, 1965, as he was protecting an African American teenage girl named Ruby Sales.

The pilgrimage starts at the courthouse, where a trial lasting less than an hour found the man who murdered Daniels “not guilty.” It moves to the place where previously there stood a small country store in which Jonathan was shot. The 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 recent disastrous march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The similarities are sometimes too much to bear, reminding us that we seem to be no farther advanced in race relations than we were three quarters of a century ago. As a nation, we are seriously lacking in our securing of human rights. We all need continued growth in 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 in his 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, and especially by 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 services 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 and uncomfortably in the middle of the controversy.

In May, Jon went back to seminary to take examinations and complete other requirements. In July he returned to Alabama, where he helped to create a list of helpful local, state, and federal agencies, along with other supportive resources legally available to persons of color.

On Friday, August 13, Jon and others went to the town of Fort Deposit to join in picketing three local businesses. On Saturday they all were arrested and held in the county jail in Hayneville for six days before receiving 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 part-time deputy aimed the gun at a seventeen-year-old black girl in the party, Ruby Sales. Jon pushed her out of the way, took the bullet, 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.

Our associate rector, Michael, reminded me that at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, during seminary orientation, all the first-year students are loaded into a bus and taken on the Jonathan Daniels pilgrimage. He describes it as a very moving experience for many who are visiting the site of a martyr for the first time.

When we sing or say together Mary’s song, the Magnificat (Book of Common Prayer, p. 119), let us remember Jonathan Myrick Daniels and Ruby Sales and how this Canticle altered both of their lives. Is there something in that song that resonates with each of us as well?

Daniels died on August 20, but is remembered on the day of his arrest, August 14.