"Something happened to me in Selma": 50 years ago, a young white seminary student risked everything for the call of civil rights

Jonathan Daniels was murdered by a Lowndes County, Alabama, man who went unpunished. Still, he did not die in vain

Published August 23, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Daniels   (Wikimedia)
Jonathan Daniels (Wikimedia)

The ceremonies  that marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the historic Voting Rights Act last Aug. 6 have not yet ended. Last weekend people from as far away as Alaska and the Virgin Islands returned to Selma, Alabama, to remember yet another tragedy that occurred half a century ago when, on Aug. 20, 1965, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminary student named Jonathan Daniels lost his life while fighting for civil rights.

Jon Daniels, of Keene, New Hampshire, was one of the thousands who answered Dr. Martin Luther King's call to join his campaign for voting rights in Selma following the assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965. He lived with a black family, tutored young students and demonstrated for equal rights. Nine days later he returned to his studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts,  but he was determined to make civil rights a part of his life.

"Something happened to me in Selma ...," he later noted. "I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and  value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high , my own identity was called too nakedly into question ... I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here."

He asked officials at the Episcopal Theological School to permit him to finish the semester in Selma. He would submit his academic assignments by mail while, at the same time, assisting the African-American community, who suffered so greatly from that tortured city's racial  problems. The school allowed him to go to Selma as a representative of ESCRU, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. He wore the badge with the letters "ESCRU" proudly on his chest.

That badge brought him trouble when he returned to Selma. Waiting in line at the local post office, a man looked him over, his eye caught by the seminarian's collar and the ESCRU button. "Know what he is?" the man asked a friend. "Why, he's a white niggah." At first, Daniels was startled to see others turn to study him, obviously thinking he was one of  the pariahs the segregationists called "outside agitators." But then Daniels felt not fear but pride, wishing he could announce, "I am indeed a 'white nigger.'" Later he reflected, "I wouldn't swap the blessings He has given me. But black would be a very wonderful, a very beautiful color to be."

On Palm Sunday, he and his colleagues led a group of African-Americans to Selma's St. Paul's Episcopal Church where, after some resistance, they were allowed to attend morning services -- the first church to be desegregated in Selma. But they were forced to sit in the church's last row and let white parishioners be the first to receive communion. Later Daniels was accosted in the street by a well-dressed man, perhaps a lawyer or a banker, who asked him: "Are you the scum that's been going to the Episcopal church?" Then he answered his question: "S-C-U-M. That's what you are -- you and that nigger trash you bring with you." Daniels said he was "sorry" that the man was upset by having to share his church with the blacks who shared his faith but complimented him on how well he could  spell.

In August, he joined activists from King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who were working in "Bloody Lowndes County," so called because of the brutal treatment blacks received there since the end of Reconstruction. Of the almost 6,000 blacks who were eligible to vote, none was registered prior to the advent of the civil rights movement in Alabama and, despite the efforts of activists who began working there early in 1965, not a single black participated in the Voting Rights March. Stokely Carmichael, SNCC's most charismatic organizer, who was building a civil rights movement in the county, aptly called Lowndes “the epitome of the tight, insulated police state.”

Carmichael's target on Aug. 14 was Fort Deposit, a Klan bastion and a town that treated its black population with special cruelty. Here they would lead local youth in a protest, the first in the town's history. FBI agents on the scene urged them to cancel the demonstration. An armed mob of white men armed with guns, clubs and bottles was gathering and the Bureau refused to protect the protesters. They went forward anyway, picketing a cafe, a dry goods store and a grocery. The police soon appeared and arrested the activists, including Stokely Carmichael, Jon Daniels, four SNCC workers, a Catholic priest from Chicago named Richard Morrisoe and 17 local youths. They were charged with "resisting arrest and picketing to cause blood." The mob turned their fury on reporters observing events from the relative safety of two cars. The reporters fled after the mob attacked their cars with baseball bats as they tried to  pull them into the street.

Daniels and the others were taken to the newly built county jail in Hayneville, a sleepy little town of 400, whose town square was built around a 10-foot-tall monument dedicated to county men killed during the Civil War. Two months earlier, its courthouse was the site of the trial of Collie Leroy Wilkins, one of the Klansmen who had killed civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit homemaker and mother of five, who was shot while driving with a black colleague following the conclusion of the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 25. Townspeople resented the presence of foreign reporters -- more than 50, Americans, Englishmen and Swedes -- who had invaded the town in large numbers. The courtroom was filled with Klansmen who brought their wives and children to observe Imperial Klonsul Matthew Hobson Murphy defend one of their own.

After a tumultuous trial, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict so the judge declared a mistrial. Klansmen whooped, stamped their feet and clapped. "I'm glad that's over," a woman told Life magazine's John Frook. "Y'all can go back North now and let us have some peace and quiet." Virginia Foster Durr, a writer and friend of Rosa Parks who had observed the trial, did not share the woman's optimism. She sensed "there was killing in the air."  Most "of the people frighten me," she later wrote friends. "They are so insane and prejudiced." She feared that "killing would strike again, for the white people of Hayneville had condoned the killing, whatever they might say."   

The Wilkins trial and the coming of the civil rights movement to Lowndes County also enraged a 54-year-old Hayneville native named Tom Coleman. The old Lowndes County courthouse was his second home; his grandfather had been county Sheriff early in the 20th century and his father, superintendent of the county school system, once had an office there. So did his sister who currently held that post, as well as the current circuit court clerk, who was married to his cousin. Coleman spent time there every day, chatting with bailiffs and the court reporters and playing dominos in the clerk’s office. Although lacking a formal education, Coleman eventually became the county’s chief engineer whose work crews often included convict labor, which he supervised.  One night in August 1959, a black prisoner turned violent and, arming himself with broken bottles, refused to surrender peacefully and moved toward Coleman who fired his shotgun, killing the man. Since this was clearly a case of self-defense, Coleman was never charged. Indeed, he was treated by local police as a hero, a role he liked. He eventually became an unpaid “special deputy sheriff,” formed close friendships with Selma Sheriff Jim Clark and other law enforcement agents, and was proud that his son joined them by becoming a state trooper. He claimed never to have joined the Klan but he was active in the local White Citizens Council and, like the Klan, saw himself as a defender of the Southern way of life. For Coleman, those who challenged Southern mores, like Jon Daniels, were public enemy No. 1.

"The food is vile and we aren't allowed to bathe (whew!)," Jon Daniels wrote his mother on Aug. 17, his third day in jail. "But otherwise we are okay. Should be out in 2-3 days and back to work. As you can imagine, I'll have a tale or two to swap over our next martini." ESCRU had offered to provide the bail to free Daniels but he refused because it wasn't sufficient to cover his 19 colleagues also imprisoned. Then, suddenly, on Friday, Aug. 20, Daniels was informed that their bail had been waived and they were free to go. Hayneville's mayor, apparently fearing federal intervention, had ordered their release.

One of the first to learn the news was Tom Coleman, who was at the courthouse playing dominoes with friends. Believing that the notorious Stokely Carmichael was now on the loose and trouble was sure to ensue, Coleman got his .12- gauge automatic shotgun and went immediately to the local grocery, where he offered to protect Virginia Varner, a longtime friend who owned the Cash Store. Coleman was misinformed -- Carmichael's bail was paid two days earlier and he was no longer in Hayneville.

At 3 o'clock, Daniels and his friends gathered outside the jail, happy to see that everyone had survived their squalid captivity without the customary beatings or worse. They asked the jailer to protect them but he refused, urging them to get off the county's property. So they began to walk toward the courthouse square a few blocks away. Obviously SNCC headquarters had not been informed of their release, so Willie Vaughn went in search of a phone. Spotting the Varner Cash Store with its large Coca-Cola signs, Daniels, Rev. Morrisroe and two African-American girls, Ruby Sales, 20,  and Joyce Bailey, 19, walked toward the store to get a cold drink and something to eat. It did not occur to the tired and hungry activists that an interracial group, even one so young and harmless, might incite local racists.

Jon Daniels opened the screen door for Ruby Sales and the two came face to face with Tom Coleman. “[G]et out, the store is closed,” he yelled. "[G]et off this property or I’ll blow your god-damned heads off, you sons of bitches.” Daniels pulled Ruby Sales behind him and tried to talk to the angry man. He was polite and, with his clerical collar, did not look like someone who posed a threat. But, without further words, Coleman fired his .12-gauge automatic shotgun, blowing a hole in Daniel’s chest, killing him instantly. Richard Morrisroe grabbed Joyce Bailey's hand and they turned to run but Coleman fired again, hitting the priest in the back and side, seriously, but not critically, injuring him. After threatening to kill others who approached, Coleman put down his weapon, drove to the sheriff’s office and telephoned Al Lingo, Alabama’s safety director. “I just shot two preachers,” he told him. “You better get on down here.”

Daniel and Morrisroe’s friends held a rally later that night. “We’re going to tear this county down,” a saddened and angry Stokely Carmichael said. “Then we’re going to build it back brick by brick, until it’s a fit place for human beings.” Since March, four civil rights workers had been murdered — Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. Jim Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and now Jonathan Daniels. Soon Carmichael’s fury would result in the organization of a separate political party in Lowndes County: Its symbol was the black panther, its slogan, “Power for Black People.”

To the citizens of Lowndes County, Tom Coleman was a hero -- “a hell of a nice guy,” people said. County Solicitor Carlton Purdue said that Coleman “was like the rest of us. He’s strong in his feelings.” Tom Coleman and his family were “all good friends” of his, he told reporters who had returned to Lowndes County to cover another murder trial. “If [Daniels and Morrisroe] had been tending to their own business, like I was tending to mine, they’d be living and enjoying themselves." These attitudes may explain why the Lowndes County Grand Jury charged Coleman not with first- or second-degree murder and attempted murder in Morrisroe’s case, but manslaughter and assault and battery. Alabama’s attorney general, Richmond Flowers, called the grand jury’s action “an abdication of … responsibility.” Lowndes County justice proceeded as usual, oblivious to outsiders’ criticism. In fact, the more the national media attacked Southern customs, the more its citizens embraced them. When Flowers asked Judge T. Werth Thagard, who was trying the case, for a two-month postponement until Father Morrisroe, his chief eyewitness, had recovered sufficiently to testify, the judge rejected the motion and declared, “The trial of Tom Coleman will begin tomorrow.” Flowers refused to participate so Thagard removed him and asked Carlton Purdue and Arthur Gamble to prosecute.

When the trial began on Sept. 27, the courtroom was packed with Klansmen — including Liuzzo's killers, Collie Leroy Wilkins, Eugene Thomas and William Orville Eaton. Defense witnesses testified that Daniels threatened Coleman with a switchblade knife while Morrisroe pulled a gun, so Coleman was merely protecting himself when he shot them. The jury rejected Ruby Sales' eyewitness testimony, finding the lies more persuasive. In his closing statement defense attorney Joe Phelps said, “You know Tom Coleman and you know he had to do what he did,” while his co-counsel added: “God give us such men! Men with great hearts, strong minds, pure souls -- and ready hands!” Coleman had a God-given right “to defend himself and his lady.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 29, just two days after the trial began, the jury began its deliberations. The “trial watchers,” awaiting the jury’s decision, were “busily talking in huddles,” not about the verdict -- which was never in doubt -- but about tomorrow’s football game between the University of Alabama and “Ole Miss.” After about 90 minutes, the jury found Coleman not guilty of all charges. Thagard thanked the jurors who, before heading to the clerk’s office to receive their stipend, walked over to Coleman and shook his hand. One asked, "We gonna be able to make that dove shoot now, ain’t we?”

The NAACP called the jury’s verdict “a monstrous farce,” which encouraged “every Alabama bigot” to declare “open season on Negroes and their white friends.” The NAACP was right — Fort Deposit citizens were now seen driving cars with bumper stickers which read "Open Season."

Despite this legal travesty, Jon Daniels did not die in vain. ESCRU and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit that attacked the county legal system for prohibiting women and blacks from serving on juries. That October, the Justice Department intervened, ordering county officials to produce all jury records since 1915 and the results showed evidence of racial and gender discrimination and other legal improprieties. In 1966, the Federal Court of Appeals in Montgomery, Alabama, declared state laws excluding women from juries unconstitutional as well as any practice that prevented African-Americans from jury service. "The decision revolutionized the jury system in [Lowndes] County," writes historian Charles Eagles. "[And] indirectly it also promised greater protection for civil rights workers by guaranteeing that blacks would serve on the juries that indicted and tried people like Tom Coleman."

Dr. Martin Luther King called Jon Daniels' sacrifice "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry." While countless African-Americans lost their lives in the South for simply being black or fighting for the right to vote, we should not forget their white allies, like Jon Daniels, who were jailed, beaten and murdered in the fight for civil rights.   

By Gary May

Gary May is emeritus professor of history at the University of Delaware and the author of five books, among them "Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington," recently published in paperback by Oxford University Press.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Civil Rights Civil Rights Movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jonathan Daniels Selma Voting Rights Act