Tuesday, August 13, 2013

True Sacrifice: In Memory of Jonathan M. Daniels

I had never heard the name Johnathan Myrick Daniels until about five years ago when I began doing the daily office.   Imagine my delight to discover a modern day martyr of the church had grown up in one of the major cities in southern New Hampshire!  And, better yet, imagine my awe when I read that his sacrificial deed was to die protecting the life of an African-American teenager in Alabama named Ruby Sales.  How could the public schools in New Hampshire have failed to tell this man's story along side their teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  How different would that period of history have looked to all of us white children in very white New Hampshire if we had learned that one of the people killed in the struggle for civil rights was one of us, a native of the Granite State?   When that history is presented as solely the story of African-Americans fighting against the Jim Crow machinery of Southern white oppression, it turns a complex, multi-dimensional history into a cardboard cut-out version of itself.  And that lack of nuance, I think, contributes to a disconnect from the understanding that we really are all in this together.

That disconnect was something that Jonathan Daniels began to recognize as he went about the task of integration in a hostile Alabama atmosphere.  Daniels had been part of a group that had come down to Selma from the Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA) at the encouragement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the march from Selma to Montgomery.   He and a classmate, Judy Upham, missed their bus to return north, which turned out to be exactly the prophetic accident that was necessary.  Both of them acknowledged that it must look pretty awful to the folks from Selma to have these Yankees show up, do their civil rights duty, and then go home to read about the struggles happening in the south from the comfortable distance of their homes in Boston and New York.  And so they stayed the rest of the semester, flew home to take their exams, and came back to continue their ministry as seminarians-on-the-ground, taking groups of African-Americans to Episcopal Churches where they were not welcomed, and tutoring young black children.  And, of course, protesting and picketing.

There is one story that James Kiefer relates from the diaries of Jonathan Daniels that, to me, shows how his faith was getting shaped in each encounter with prejudice.   It was a rainy day in Selma, and there was a protest, with the civil rights advocates standing firm against a hostile squad of Selma police officers.  Daniels recalls he was standing in an ankle deep puddle when his part of the line pushed forward.  He heard the voice of one of the African-American teenage girls calling to him from behind.  He reached his hand back, but she kept beckoning him to pull away from the cops.  Affirmed in the rightness of his cause, he says, he refused to retreat, and instead, pulled this girl forward with him... through the puddle.  The officer across from Daniels scolded the young man: 

"You're dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that." Flushing--I had forgotten the puddle--I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was, that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt--I was not altogether sure I blamed him--I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, "I love ---." One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken "Wall" in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving--or perhaps the Te Deum.

Daniels joined with others to protest segregated businesses in Fort Deposit, Alabama.  They were arrested on August 14, 1965, and held for six days in a crowded jail cell, refusing bail unless they were all bailed out together.  That day of release came on August 20th, and Daniels along with a Roman Catholic priest and two African-American teenage girls were let out of jail in Hayneville, with no way to get to Fort Deposit.  They went to a local store looking for a cold drink.  It was on the steps of that store that Tom Coleman, a state highway worker and special deputy, leveled his shotgun at Ruby Sales.  Daniels pushed Sales down and took the blast of the gunshot full force.  He was killed instantly.  Coleman also shot at the Roman Catholic priest, getting him in the lower back as he ran with the other girl.  An all-white jury acquitted Coleman of manslaughter, and he was never tried again.  The murder, and the appalling lack of justice, shook the Episcopal Church, and helped motivate the ECUSA to take up the social justice gospel message of the civil rights movement.  One of ours, a white seminarian, had to die to bring the church to fight for societal change.

Which brings me back to that question: why isn't Jonathan Daniels story told in the public schools of New Hampshire, especially during that mandatory section in 4th grade social studies, where students learn the importance and meaning of "Live Free or Die?   Why not share his legacy, how he ultimately understood that all his self-identification as a Yankee was dropping away as just so much crap when in reality he was part of the One that connects all people of all races, ethnicities, orientations. Perhaps New Hampshire is teaching about him now.  I'm sure the children attending Jonathan Daniels School, one of the elementary schools in Keene, must know the story of their school's namesake.    

The collect for Jonathan Daniels Day in the Episcopal Church gives a nod to the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which spoke deeply to Daniels and his call to go south:

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and  violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.



mmarnicio said...

Thought you would be interested in this: http://www.daniels.keene.k12.nh.us/about


SCG said...

Hey Michelle! Thanks for the link. I looked up information about the school and it apparently is one of the better ones in Keene. The description sounds great.