Outlasting Rome: slain seminary student remembered each August

As a boy, Jonathan Daniels dreamed of being a knight in shining armor. Over time, his father, a physician and World War II veteran, showed him that not all heroes are swashbucklers. In fact, most of them lead ordinary lives, serving their fellow man in whatever capacity they can. After a long search for purpose, Daniels chose the ministry — or rather felt that he had been chosen for the ministry at age 23 following a period of self-imposed exile from the church. “Somebody must visit the sick and the lonely and the frightened and the sorrowing. Somebody must comfort the discouraged, argue lovingly and convincingly with the anguished doubter. Somebody must remind the sick soul that healing is within his grasp and urge him to take the medicine when the disease seems more attractive,” Daniels said during a sermon while he was awaiting word from the Episcopal Theological Seminary. In March 1965, Daniels left the safety of his campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and traveled south. Daniels, a New Hampshire native, had long thought of the South as his adopted home because of pleasant memories associated with his father’s military service there during World War II. Always one to root for the underdog, he expressed “great affection for the gallant and valorous but misguided Johnny Rebs.” However, Daniels was also sensitive to racial prejudice. As a seminarian, he counseled poor urban youth and joined the NAACP in October 1963, one month after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. After watching the television coverage of Bloody Sunday in March 1965, Daniels responded to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy from across the nation to join him for “a minister’s march” in Selma. With the fight for civil rights ongoing as other marchers returned to their former lives, Daniels decided to stay and moved into the George Washington Carver housing project in Selma. He surely knew that he was taking a risk. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who had also come to Selma, died after several white men beat him and two other ministers with clubs the night of the march. However, Daniels believed that he and others of faith could be a light shining in the darkness. “We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it,” he wrote in April 1965. “For through the bramble brash of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. This is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.” On Aug. 14, 1965, Daniels was arrested after participating in a nonviolent demonstration outside businesses in Fort Deposit. The group spent six days in jail in nearby Hayneville. Moments after their release, Daniels, a fellow white clergyman and two black females walked to a store for a soft drink. The white proprietor refused them entry and then leveled a shotgun at 17-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her down and took the blast that was meant for her. King would call it “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”

At the time, Daniels was viewed in some circles as another Yankee agitator. In 1991, he was named a martyr in the Episcopal Church. The church celebrates his life each Aug. 14. In 2015, one of his seminary professors eulogized him the day that a bust of Daniels was dedicated at Washington National Cathedral. “When a servant of God does not cling to life in the face of a cross or a shotgun, the logic of oppressive empires and racist cultures has run its course; their power and its weapons have done all they can do,” the Rev. Harvey H. Guthrie said. “But God’s logic persists; God’s powerless weakness — whose weapons are justice and compassionate solidarity and love — continues its patient, persistent, non-violent subversion of oppressive empires and racist cultures. Jesus does not conquer Rome, but Jesus outlasts Rome. Jonathan Daniels and the company of civil rights martyrs do not conquer racist cultures, but what they are about outlasts those cultures.” Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.