Ray Duckler: If you’ve never heard of Jonathan Daniels, read this

Last modified: 1/28/2015 2:06:01 PM
Jonathan Daniels, answering a call from God and Martin Luther King Jr., went to Alabama in the spring of 1965 and died there five months later.

He was killed by a shotgun blast from a man named Thomas Coleman, because Daniels sought to do more than make a cameo appearance on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

So he lived with black families, read to black children and opened his country’s eyes, holding up a mirror and reflecting the racism that scarred the south at the time.

In a sense, it’s what killed Daniels, at age 26.

A wiry white man with narrow features, Daniels was born and raised in Keene, and I’m ashamed to say that until recently, I knew nothing about him.

But with the release of the movie Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. Day slated for tomorrow, the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches coming in March, and the 50th anniversary of Daniels’s death, on Aug. 20, the time to learn is now.

Daniels wore a collar representing his faith as an Episcopal seminarian, and he joined King and others in protests that led to the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

That’s two weeks before Coleman killed Daniels, who had moved to shield a young black girl, the target of Coleman’s fury.

And that puts us on the civil rights map.

“It’s fair to say that New Hampshire sees itself as rather insulated from the stresses around race in the United States,” said Rob Hirschfeld, the 10th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, whose office is downtown. “But if you go through Jonathan Daniels and who he was, we played a very important role.”

History tells us that Daniels was the son of a Keene doctor, whose tolerant and caring views shaped his son’s vision for the future. His trail led to Keene High, to the Virginia Military Institute, to Harvard University for graduate work, to the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass.

Hirschfeld, who’s 54, too young to recall Daniels, relayed a story he’d heard about an epiphany Daniels had at Harvard, on Easter Sunday, 1962.

“He felt through his baptism that he was connected not only to God but to the whole human experience,” Hirschfeld told me. “And in his writings, he shows this deep powerful sense that what baptism does is not set him apart from humanity, but actually immerses him in the human condition.”

Three years later came a pair of Alabama marches seeking to bring attention to black voting rights. One, which became known as Bloody Sunday, resulted in scores of injuries, caused by baton-wielding state troopers on horseback.

Daniels was watching the news reports and reading the newspaper accounts, and when King called for more support for yet another march, Daniels packed his bags and went south from Cambridge.

He helped coordinate a defining moment in history, when thousands of protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery. He heard King speak live. Many left the state afterward.

Not Daniels, though. He ingrained himself in the community, a fact cited in the 2003 documentary, Here Am I, Send Me: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels, by filmmaker Larry Benaquist.

“Unlike the vast majority of people who traveled to Alabama to answer Reverend King’s call, Daniels stayed in the South through the spring and into the summer,” Benaquist said in an email yesterday. “He decided that he could not abandon the friends he had made there, and with whom he lived and worked.”

On Aug. 20, 1965, after being jailed for protesting white-only stores, Daniels and three others, a white man and two black girls, were released and walked to a local store.

There, they saw Thomas Coleman, an unpaid special deputy carrying a holstered pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun. In its obit of Coleman, published in 1997, the New York Times wrote, “Then as he aimed the shotgun at one of the young women and began to pull the trigger, she and other witnesses said, Mr. Daniels pushed the young woman to the ground and used his body as a shield just as the gun went off, nearly tearing his body in two.”

“According to witnesses, he clutched his stomach,” Benaquist wrote in his email.

Art Walmsley of Deering, now 86, is a retired Episcopal priest who worked for the church’s national headquarters in New York City during this tumultuous period.

He helped recruit people for the Alabama marches. He raised funds, and he worked to free those who were unfairly jailed.

He also knew Daniels, telling me, “He was captured by the depth of the struggle.”

Walmsley had been in constant contact with Daniels during the marches in ’65. He helped pull the strings, coordinating, delegating and monitoring.

He was swimming in Deering Lake when his neighbor came by and told him someone had been gunned down in Alabama.

“She said, ‘A young seminary student has just been killed,’ ” Walmsley said. “I knew exactly who it was.”

So why don’t we know more about Daniels, about his sacrifice and courage and unselfishness?

Benaquist cited the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, which had erupted just days before Daniels’s murder and may have overshadowed his death.

“The second (reason),” Benaquist said in his email, “may be that the nation was just tired, exhausted, with events in the South.”

Some noticed and paid tribute, however. There’s a shrine to Daniels at the Canterbury Cathedral in England. He’s been chosen as the next sculpture to be carved on the Human Rights Porch at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. There’s a Jonathan M. Daniels School in Keene.

And the Rev. Mark Jenkins, the rector of Saint James Episcopal Church in Keene, has seen Daniels’s legend grow in recent years.

“We’re seeing a movement from a sense of Jonathan as a native son to one who now belongs to the ages,” Jenkins said. “It’s fascinating for me to watch as he is increasingly becoming the saint the Episcopal Church named him as a number of years back. It’s an interesting procedure to observe.”

And long overdue.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 


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