SELMA, Ala. — Judith Upham has been here only a couple of times since the death of her close friend, Jonathan Daniels, 50 years ago this month, but she came this week to mark the anniversary.
On Friday, Upham and her partner, Lauren Gough, joined a delegation from the Episcopal Divinity School that is on a prayerful pilgrimage visiting key sites in the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. Many of the stops Friday followed in the footsteps of Keene native Daniels, including a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday confrontation on March 7, 1965, in which demonstrators were severely beaten by local authorities.
The media coverage of that confrontation — peaceful protesters being viciously attacked by armed police and attack dogs — galvanized a nation already grappling with a deep legacy of racism.
Daniels and Upham took part in the final portion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march that drew thousands later that month, inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Both Upham and Gough were visibly moved by the emotion of the day Friday, with Gough saying, “We were just kids then.” Fearing the impending violence, Gough went home to Texas during the movement while Daniels and Upham stayed on.
Today, remembrances of Daniels in Alabama will climax when hundreds of people from around the country gather in Hayneville, a small town about 35 miles from Selma, where Daniels was shot and killed by a local special deputy on Aug. 20, 1965. Stops will include the jail where Daniels and others were held for a week before the shooting, the site of the shooting itself and the courthouse where former deputy Tom Coleman was tried for his murder and acquitted by an all-white jury.
Commemoration events will shift to Keene next week, including a full weekend of activities highlighted by a Saturday program at The Colonial Theatre and a Sunday service at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene that will feature a sermon by Ruby Sales, whose life Daniels saved that day.
Daniels was a seminarian at the divinity school in Cambridge, Mass., then called the Episcopal Theological School, when he answered Martin Luther King’s call to join the voter rights movement in the summer of 1965.
The group from EDS is on a five-day pilgrimage, and includes Keene residents Bridget Hansel and Jim Putnam, along with David Ferner of Stoddard, a retired Episcopalian priest. Many on the pilgrimage knew Daniels and others are aspiring seminarians from around the country. It has included time for reflection and prayer.
The pilgrimage began Wednesday and, all three local residents said, while tiring and sometimes overwhelming in its historical context, it has mostly been inspiring. “I can’t say enough about how terrific this has been,” Hansel said.
The Keene church is also sponsoring a youth group in Alabama this week, led by Derek Scalia, a social justice activist who took an avid interest in Daniels’ story. The nine kids on the trip, ages 10 to 16, have been visiting civil rights movement museums and historical sites throughout the area. Everyone will join together today for the events in Hayneville.
The group spent Thursday in Birmingham, visiting museums and churches related to the civil rights cause.
“The kids are having a ball,” said Scalia Thursday, who has also taken Franklin Pierce University students to Alabama in tracing Daniels’ steps for a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement.
Friday was an especially heavy day for the adult group. Along with the bridge walk, stops in Selma included Brown Chapel and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Daniels tried to worship but was often turned away because of his support of African-Americans. On Friday Rev. Jack Alvey arranged a luncheon followed by four speakers with direct connections to Daniels.
Many in the group were teary-eyed as the speakers talked about Daniels’ life and the roles they played in it.
Friday also included a stop at the Viola Liuzzo Roadside Memorial. A mother of five and activist from Michigan, she was killed March 25, 1965, in her car, reportedly by the Klu Klux Klan. On Friday night the group was expected to attend a talk by Morris Dees Jr. of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
— Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.