Archive for August, 2015

Modern martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels

In the film “Selma,” released early this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches in Alabama, one of the most disturbing scenes is the brutal murder of young Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist deacon.

The scene is shown as an event that precipitated those marches.

Jackson, however, wasn’t the only clergyman who was killed in the events surrounding those marches in support of passage of the Voting Rights Act. Another young Christian martyr, who is honored with a memorial here in Nelson County, was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Harvard-educated white Episcopalian who was gunned down 50 years ago this week.

In 2012, I mentioned Daniels’ memorial in an illustrated column I wrote for The Kentucky Standard’s People & Places page about an autumn day hike at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

In a forest glade on the grounds of the Trappist monastery near New Haven is the beautiful, life-sized reproduction of “The Garden of Gethsemani” by renowned American sculptor Walker Hancock. It shows a kneeling Jesus agonizing over his impending crucifixion while nearby his disciples Peter, John and James, lie asleep, unaware of his fear and suffering.

The story of the artwork is included on a plaque near the sleeping disciples. It attributes the sculptures to Hancock, mentions that they were donated by William Coolidge of Boston, Mass., and says only that they were dedicated to the memory of Daniels. According to the plaque, he was killed in Alabama on Aug. 20, 1965. (Several online sources give the date of his death as Aug. 14, but the date on his gravestone is the same as that on the plaque.)

The plaque also contains these words as a reminder that the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church includes all followers of Jesus, not only those of any particular denomination: “May we always remember that the church exists to lead men to Christ in various ways, but it is always the same Christ.”

The story of Daniels’ killing is told in more detail in a book I read this summer by Gene Robinson, a retired Episcopal bishop from Kentucky.

According to Robinson’s account, Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, N.H., and while studying at Harvard, experienced a conviction to become a priest. He was to have been ordained in 1966. But in 1965, he heeded a call by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for students and others to come to the South and join in the march to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.

After the Selma marches, Daniels chose to spend the summer in Alabama and advocate on behalf of disenfranchised African-Americans.

On Aug. 13, according to Robinson, he and other protesters in Fort Deposit, Ala., were arrested and jailed in nearby Hayneville.

After their release, Daniels, a priest and two black youths went to a grocery store to buy Cokes. Tom Coleman, a highway worker and special deputy, was angry with the demonstrators and came toward them with a shotgun leveled at 17-year-old Ruby Sales.

Daniels pushed the girl to the ground and took the full blast of the gun himself. He died instantly.

The priest was shot in the back but escaped with the two youths.

In 1991, the Episcopal Church honored Daniels with a special day of remembrance in its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, on Aug. 14.

Following is the collect for the day:

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

August 2015
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