Jonathan Daniels (Civil Rights Memorial)
As remembered by Joan Browning
Virginia Military Institute in Lexington celebrated Black History Month by honoring Jonathan Daniels, the valedictorian of its Class of 1961. Last year, the Episcopal Church added the anniversary of his death to its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Jonathan Daniels, VMI '61, will forever be remembered each August 20th by Episcopalians, an honor not quite but almost sainthood.
The military school is proud of its historic role in training warriors (including professors and cadets who fought to preserve the evil of slavery). The church celebrates the martyrdom of a priest who died practicing the peace and brotherhood he preached. By sharing memories of white Jonathan Daniels during Black History Month, VMI and the Episcopal Church acknowledged that human life is a complex, beguiling mystery.
After VMI, Daniels studied for the Episcopal priesthood. During the southern Civil Rights upheaval, he answered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for "people of good will" to stand with the oppressed people of Selma, Alabama.
Ruby Sales, Richard Morrisroe, and Judith Upham came to VMI to remember Daniels. My information about the day comes from interviewing persons present and from Claudia Schwab's excellent report in the Lexington, Virginia News-Gazette.
They recalled that long-ago hot Alabama day. Sales, a student at Tuskegee Institute, Daniels, the seminarian, and Morrisroe, a Catholic priest from Chicago, along with another young black student, Joyce Bailey, had been released after six days in Hayneville Prison. They were jailed for opposing slavery's legacy, racial discrimination, in Lowndes County.
The little group was about 100 yards from the jail, on their way to the Cash Store for a Coca-Cola, when, as Ruby Sales recalls, Tom Coleman "called me a black bitch,' aimed his shotgun and Jon pulled me back. The gun was absolutely aimed at me." Daniels died instantly.
Morrisroe took Coleman's second shotgun blast trying to save Joyce Bailey. After six months in the hospital and two years of physical therapy, he learned again to walk.
Rev. Judith Upham marched in Selma with Jonathan in the spring, but returned to seminary that summer. She remembered Jon's smile and his VMI-spit & polish shoes. "Because he didn't get the chance, I'm carrying out his priesthood as well as my own," she said. She has worked in inner city black parishes and is an ordained priest, and is priest-in-charge of a small parish in rural Maryland.
Morrisroe left the ministry and has been a college lecturer, city planner, legislative assistant for the city of East Chicago, Indiana, and staff attorney for the Chicago Transit Authority. He remains active in the church and inner city programs. His son is named Jonathan.
And Tuskegee Institute student Ruby Sales? She taught African American History and African American Women's History at several colleges and universities. For the past five years, she has been involved in organizations working on social and economic issues impacting women and communities lacking resources. And she is currently a student in the masters of divinity program at Jonathan Daniels' other alma mater, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tom Coleman, the man who murdered Jonathan Daniels and seriously wounded Richard Morrisroe, was acquitted by an all-white jury. University of Mississippi historian Dr. Charles Eagles wrote Outside Agitator, Daniels' biography. According to Eagles, Coleman still lives in Hayneville and has never shown any sign of remorse.
Eagle says that Daniels' ability to persevere and succeed at VMI helped him survive Selma and Hayneville Prison. Jonathan Daniels, a student of war, was remember as a man of peace by his military school and his ecumenical co-religionists during Black History Week. That's a History Lesson that may take years to comprehend.
© 1995 Papilion Lane Press