HAYNEVILLE, Ala — The legacy of Jonathan Daniels was reinforced under a blazing August Alabama sun Saturday, as hundreds turned out to honor the Keene native at the site of his death.
Prayers, hymns and a march retracing his steps in the final days of life marked the 50th commemoration of his death. Daniels was shot Aug. 20, 1965, by an off-duty special deputy, Tom Coleman, while pulling down Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old African-American teen, saving her life.
Keene was well-represented Saturday by adult and youth contingents that have spent several days in the area, studying the Civil Rights Movement and Daniels’ final months. Three area residents are part of a pilgrimage hosted by the Episcopal Divinity School, attended by Daniels.
A youth group from the St. James Episcopal Church led by Derek Scalia also took part in the commemoration. Everyone from the Keene area wore specially made matching red T-shirts honoring Daniels, who was 26 when he died.
The day was highlighted by a march to the key locales in Hayneville, population 884, where Daniels spent the final days of his life, notably the town’s decrepit jail and ultimately the store around the corner where he was killed. Varner’s Cash Store itself was torn down a few months ago and a new building erected in its place.
An historic marker in front of the new store was unveiled Saturday by Rev. Francis X. Walter, a retired priest who visited Daniels in jail, in one of the most poignant moments of the day. The words on the marker were then read, including the line: “May this ground always teach us of the price of the goodness and justice given by all of the saints and the martyrs of Alabama.”
A song titled “We Are Standing on Holy Ground” was performed, with many in attendance shedding tears through its singing. Many people kneeled in front of the marker, repeating, “We are standing on holy ground.”
The Keene youth group from St. James Episcopalian Church then formed a circle around the base of the marker and placed stones they had collected in Keene under it. They symbolize the link between the two culturally different communities that are forever united through Daniels.
“It was a very emotional moment for me and the kids,” Scalia said.
Keith Brown, 16, of the youth group played a special role in the ceremonies. As a church acolyte, he was asked to carry the cross during the procession and was second in line, among the many bishops who attended, with hundreds following behind.
“I was so moved by it,” Brown said. “I could feel everyone was looking at me. Whenever we marched from one place to another, it was like a path opened up and we marched through it.”
The first stop was the now-closed Hayneville jail, where Daniels and several others were locked up for six days. Following a prayer, a letter he wrote to his mother while he was in jail was read, which she would receive a day after his death. That solemn reading was punctuated by a little levity when Daniels wrote:
“I’ll have a tale or two to swap over our next martini!”
As marchers stood in temperatures in the mid-90s, they could envision the deplorable conditions inside the tiny brick building. The jail lacked air conditioning, fans, sewage backed up, the food was terrible and the prisoners weren’t allowed to bathe.
The commemoration concluded with a special service inside the courthouse where Coleman was tried and acquitted of Daniels’ murder. The sometimes rousing service was presided over by Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of North Carolina and presiding bishop-elect of Episcopal Church USA. He was accompanied by N.H. Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, who spent part of the week with the Keene groups and especially delighted the kids with his friendliness and sense of humor.
The day also brought together many friends of Daniels, including Rod West, whose family housed Daniels while he worked in the Civil Rights Movement in Selma. West was 8 years old when Daniels lived with them, and says he remembers him well.
“He was just a stickler for education and doing the right thing,” said West, who is a retired schoolteacher still living in Selma. “Jonathan was a brave man, very neat, very clean-shaven. If Jonathan told us to do something, we did it.”
Organizers said this was by far the largest gathering in the more than 20 years they have been hosting the march to commemorate Daniels’ death. Marchers were encouraged to drink liberally to combat the heat, and free bottled water on ice in several coolers were offered in the shade of the common, which is in the shadow of the courthouse.
Commemoration events now move to Keene next weekend, highlighted next Saturday by a special program at The Colonial Theatre. It will feature several prominent people who were with Daniels in his final days including Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe. He was also shot by Coleman but survived and spent time with the Keene groups this week.
A special service for Daniels will be held today at St. Paul’s Church in Selma, which Daniels tried to attend but was frequently turned away for his work with African-Americans. Likewise, a special service will be held at St. James next Sunday, with Sales expected to preach.