The spirit of Jonathan Daniels flowed through a packed, rapt audience at The Colonial Theatre Saturday night in a poignant tribute to Keene’s fallen Episcopal saint and martyr, killed 50 years ago Aug. 20.
The sentimental journey back to 1965 Lowndes County in Alabama included the screening of “Here Am I, Send Me,” the acclaimed 2003 documentary of Daniels’ life made by Keene State College professors Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan.
But it was the ensuing 40 minutes of dialogue on the stage between Richard Morrisroe, Ruby Sales, Jimmy Rogers, Rev. Judith Upham and Gloria House that left the audience wanting more.
All but Upham were with Daniels on the day he was killed in Hayneville, Ala. — she, however, lived with him and the West family in Selma, and they worked side-by-side before his death.
It was a frank discussion, often somber and sobering, that veered into comparisons of Daniels’ death 50 years ago with similar incidents that have occurred across the U.S. in recent years and months.
Daniels was killed by Tom Coleman, a special deputy in Hayneville who also critically wounded Morrisroe, then a Catholic priest. The shotgun blast was aimed at Sales, but Daniels pulled her down and took the full brunt of buckshot.
Rogers and House also had been jailed with Daniels in Hayneville for six days before being suddenly released. Four members of the group were confronted by Coleman about 20 minutes later as they tried to buy cold drinks at Varner’s Cash Store a half-block from the tiny jail.
House said Coleman is still symbolically relevant today, as African-Americans continue to lose their lives and dignity in confrontations with authorities. She said just as Coleman represented the white hierarchy fearful of losing power and privileges, the same battle continues today.
“He feared the loss of white privilege. He saw the civil rights movement as a very real threat that the life he knew might end very soon ….” House said. “There are still those people in our society today who fear the (minority) alliance among us.”
Sales, who will preach this morning in a special service at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, expounded on House’s call for audience members to contemplate today’s racial climate.
She has dedicated her life to activism against racism, and is founder and director of The SpiritHouse Project in Atlanta, which melds the arts, research and education with spirituality in the fight for social justice.
She said the murder of Daniels wasn’t about pure fear, but about the fear of losing economic power, and the right to dominate, that Coleman may have been one man, but he represented an entire patriarchy.
“I think we really need to deepen our conversation beyond Coleman,” Sales said, asking people to understand that Lowndes County in 1965 was actually a terrorist state. “I think we need to ask ourselves some very profound questions.”
Upham added that Daniels laid down his “white privilege” in that class warfare, and that’s what people today should be willing to do. But, she said, you can’t change people’s hearts through legislation.
Morrisroe infused some humor into the night, explaining how he and Daniels had met nine days earlier in Birmingham, that Daniels took him to Selma and Lowndes County “instead of the vacation I had envisioned.”
He chuckled in recounting how, years later, church officials reviewed Daniels’ writings and bumped Florence Nightingale out of sainthood, adding Daniels to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts calendar of commemorations in 1994.
And Morrisroe recalled spending 10 days in the Daniels home in Keene after Jonathan’s death, staying in his room and studying his writings. “The world of Keene was a womb that meant a great deal to Jonathan,” Morrisroe said. “It was his womb.”
Unlike the other panelists, Rogers talked about the killing itself, and subsequent character assassinations cooked up by local authorities as Coleman’s trial unfolded. In acquitting him, the all-white jury believed that Daniels threatened Coleman with a knife, and that Rogers ran away with the evidence.
Saturday’s commemoration opened with moderator Hank Knight welcoming the panelists, saying, “They will help us put our commemoration in perspective of the times. … The film reminds us that Jonathan’s story is their story, too.”
Knight referred to several letters written by dignitaries, local and national, as part of the commemoration. They included a letter from Keene Mayor Kendall Lane in January proclaiming 2015 the Year of Jonathan Daniels. Also, N.H. Gov. Maggie Hassan declared Saturday Jonathan Daniels Day in the state of New Hampshire.
The only letter Knight did read drew gasps. “The letter is simply and distinguishingly signed Barack Obama,” he said.
The audience then heard four minutes of a sermon delivered by Daniels at St. James Church on Jan. 27, 1963. It featured humor and spirituality, featuring on the theme, “What’s good about having perfect diction if you don’t have anything to say?” It concluded with Daniels’ own voice offering up the title of what would become his documentary, a biblical passage from Isiah 6:8:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here am I; send me.’”
Sales said many thoughts went through her mind as she watched the documentary and wondered what is the meaning, theologically, 50 years later. “At 50, something should have changed after the wilderness years,” she said, “and I was sitting here thinking although some things have changed, others haven’t.”
She said she thought that Daniels was a good preacher with the power of spirituality in his religion in what he was called to do.
And Sales added, “For the first time in a long time, I cried a little bit.”