Jonathan Daniels & the Alabama Martyrs


East to West, Highway 80 connects me with Montgomery and Selma. In either direction, each time I drive down the highway, I see several “Historical Site” markers and when I am headed Selma way, I drive past a couple of roadside memorials, one of them for Viola Liuzzo who was killed less than 6 miles from my house. Unless I take the bypass, I come into Selma crossing over the Edmund Pettus bridge. All of them are reminders of the Civil Rights era and how it played out right here.

The Alabama River is beautiful; wide and deep and green, with wooded banks and old railway bridges. When you cross it headed into Selma, you see the bluffs and river homes that are so reminiscent of houses all along the rivers of this part of the south— the wrought iron and the columns, the graciousness of high ceilings and commodious porches.

This is my third summer of comings and goings on Highway 80 and I often tell people I am still smitten with the gently rolling hills along the way, the sign announcing the Prayer Mile right outside Benton—I end up praying for far longer than just a mile. Cows and chickens and sheep and deer and foxes and squirrels and armadillos and coyotes and hawks have all shared this road with me and as I drive, I am aware how I have knowingly and consciously bound myself to this land.

The second axis of my comings and goings runs South to North, along Highway 97, some 30 miles of road that crosses through Letohatchee and Hayneville and then becomes Highway 29, or Broad Street, at the intersection with Highway 80; it is Broad Street/29 that carries me home to Brown Hill Road. This is the road I was on as I listened to the end of The Fault in Our Stars and finally came to journey’s end, having left Ft Lauderdale behind to start a new life. For official business—driver’s licenses, permits, all that kind of business, I go back to Hayneville and with my friend Pat, occasionally go down to a wonderful little shop in Letohatchee. This too is a beautiful road, with woods and cotton fields and collard green patches along the way.

Today, I made the trip down to Hayneville for the pilgrimage and remembrance of Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama. There were probably close to a couple of hundred people, mostly Episcopalians from Alabama and some points beyond; many gather each year to remember. VMI had a table and so did the Episcopal Church Peace Fellowship. There were TV crews and lots of clergy types.

In 1965, Daniels, a seminarian from New Hampshire came to help with voter registration and was arrested with about 25 other people in Fort Deposit; they were all transported to the county jail in Hayneville. A few days later the group was released and while most of the rest of the people stayed close to the jail, waiting for transportation, Daniels, a young African American woman named Ruby Sales, and an RC priest, James Morrisroe, walked toward a cash store that allowed African American people to do business—buy a Co’cola or a pack of cigarettes. As they got ready to enter, a white, part-time deputy pointed his shotgun at Sales and before he could fire, Daniels pushed her to the ground and took the full force of the shot in his chest; he died instantly.

Each year, the pilgrimage starts in the square in front of the court where the person who shot Daniels was found not guilty of manslaughter by a jury of 12 white men. Though this happened 51 years ago, there are still people who, I am sure, remember, who in one way or another were protagonists that hot day in August. This morning, we had funeral home fans with the words of several songs printed on them and a CME pastor leading us in song. A group of young people walked towards the front of the procession, carrying placards with pictures of Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama, some 15 people we know of who lost their lives in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and are especially remembered by the Episcopal Church. The first one, Elmer Bolling, was killed right here in Lowndesboro, in 1947. As near as anyone can tell, he was too successful, too wealthy, too empowered for his own good and the good of the community as it understood itself. Pictures of each of the three little girls who were killed in the bombing of the Birmingham Church were held high as well.

The procession stopped at the county jail, a grim place with razor wire wrapped around it. Then we marched to a house that was built very recently, after the cash shop where the shooting occurred was torn down. Again, we stopped to pray, then we marched on singing, to the sign on the green that was put up by VMI, Daniels’ alma mater, in honor of him, and then finally, into the court itself, where the judge’s bench had been converted to an altar and folks crowded in for a Eucharist. As part of the service, the name of each of the people remembered on this day was read out loud and the person who was carrying their picture  stood up and answered “Present” before going to the front of the courtroom. By the end of the litany, the whole front was nothing but beautiful, mute faces that looked out on those of us who had gathered— white and African American, young and old, beautiful, homely, holy faces. God, it was hard to look at them.

It is complicated and layered in these parts of the world. The same roads I love and have claimed as my home served as paths of suffering and despair, racial hatred and fear transfigured into violence. The beauty and the brokenness of this place are layered, one on top of the other. All the rains and the oppressive heat of the Alabama sun that melts even the asphalt, have pressed down with such intensity on those layers that they have become a single ribbon and scar through the land that accepts such a tormented history and still refuses to surrender its beauty.

Sherod and I moved here knowing this complicated history. Until recently, I always had an easier time judging, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and coming up with fast and certain solutions to all manner of problems. Now, my effort is to see, to not look away. I continue to listen to the stories, and, as happened today, at once rage and grieve. When the litanist read Jonathan Daniels’ name and described his death, we heard that he was shot at point blank range, that all that buckshot left a gaping hole in his chest. It was a gory description to listen to in the middle of a church service. But then, it seemed to me that it is the soul  itself of this place I call home that still bears that very wound, and I realized we were there because, like Thomas, we had to touch the wound and believe.

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