“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a native of Keene, New Hampshire, and seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Heeding the pleas of Dr. Martin Luther King for clergy to become more actively involved in the Civil Rights movement, he traveled to Alabama to assist with voter registration efforts in the South.
In August 1965 after having been released from prison along with a number of other civil rights workers, Jonathan Daniels and Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest, accompanied two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to store to buy a soda. They were confronted by Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who was carrying a shotgun. Daniels was shot and killed instantly as he pushed sixteen year old Ruby Sales to the ground in order to protect her. He saved her life. Morrisroe was seriously wounded.
What is the story that leads an individual to such heroism? There are books, films and plays written about this particular story. Here a few details along that path. Jonathan’s father, Dr. Phillip Daniels, a decorated veteran, was a beloved family practitioner in Keene. His mother, Connie Daniels, was a junior high school French teacher who had a strong religious faith and belief in social justice. He had a younger sister, Emily Daniels Roby, who was his steadfast supporter and remembers him fondly.
Jonathan’s father and mother both set examples for him to follow. While in high school he considered going into the ministry as he was struggling with his identity, who he was, who would he become. He finally decided to the surprise of most to attend the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
In 1961, he was elected Valedictorian and graduated first in his class at VMI. On a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and Danforth grant he went to graduate school Harvard University to study literature. In time he was drawn again to the ministry, and in 1963, he changed paths and began studies at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was just before his third year in seminary at the age of 26 that he began to volunteer in the civil rights movement. Although he had doubts and fears, saying “…I can’t imagine that I have anything to give of any significance…”, he also knew resolutely that he was being driven forward by a higher, mighty power, the Holy Spirit.
Jonathan Daniels is an inspiration to all who believe in the importance of social responsibility. The Monadnock Film Festival joins others who have honored his memory by creating the Jonathan Daniels Award.
Other acknowledgements of Jonathan’s life and dedication are listed below:
- The Episcopal Church added the date of his death to its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
- An elementary school is built in Keene, New Hampshire is named in memory of him.
- In England’s Canterbury Cathedral, his name is among the modern-day martyrs honored in the Chapel of Martyrs. Only two of these are 20th Century Americans. The other is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Two books have been written about his life: The Jon Daniels Story, by James Kiefer and Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, by Charles W. Eagles.
- A play, Six Nights in the Black Belt, by Lowell Williams about the events around his murder.
- A film Selma, Lord, Selma on IMDB
- Virginia Military Institute created the Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award in 1998, of which former President Jimmy Carter and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young have been a recipients.
- A 1999 documentary, Here Am I, Send Me: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels, produced by Keene filmmakers Lawrence Benaquist and William Sullivan.
- A cantata, A Journey to Freedom, Honor & Glory: Celebrating Jonathan Daniels, by Julius Williams.
- A proclamation in 2005 of NH Governor John Lynch, August is officially Jonathan Myrick Daniels month in the state of NH.
The list of commemorations and remembrances continues and will continue. One person has acknowledged Jonathan Daniels by following in his footsteps:
- Ruby Sales, the teenager whose life Daniels saved, attended Episcopal Theological School. She works as a human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. and founded an inner-city mission dedicated to him.
For more information on Jonathan Daniels see this websites: