By Gary G. Yerkey
About 200 people gathered August 11 in the Courthouse Square of Hayneville, Alabama, to honor the memory and heroism of Jonathan Daniels Myrick. The Pilgrimage and Procession for the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr of Hayneville, and the Martyrs of Alabama is in its 14th year.
Hayneville (pop. 932) lies roughly in the middle of Alabama’s famously fertile Lowndes County, once populated by wealthy plantation owners living in pillared mansions. When Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, came to Alabama to work in the civil rights movement in the summer of 1965, the county had become what Time described as “a gritty collection of cattle farms and dying towns living in a hand-me-down past.”
Daniels had been studying for the ministry at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After joining the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in March 1965, he returned to Cambridge to finish the school year, then went back to Alabama to spend the summer working with the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity.
On August 14, while picketing stores in nearby Fort Deposit, Daniels and two dozen other protesters were arrested and locked in the Hayneville County Jail. Daniels and several others were unexpectedly released on August 20, and while they waited for a ride back to Selma, they walked across the street to Varner’s, a small grocery store, for something to drink.
Standing near the doorway with a shotgun in hand was Thomas L. Coleman, a 54-year-old state highway engineer and part-time deputy sheriff. As the group approached the store, he shouted, “Get off my goddam property before I blow your goddam brains out, you black bastards!” Then he opened fire.
Daniels died instantly as he attempted to shield Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old girl, from the blast. Coleman was taken into custody, questioned and charged with first-degree murder. He was released the next day and eventually he was acquitted by a jury composed entirely of white men.
The ceremony in Hayneville to honor Daniels and the other Alabama martyrs began with this collect from Lesser Feasts and Fasts: “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.”
Don King, verger at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, led an hour-long pilgrimage to the former grocery store and the old county jail. The commemoration concluded with a worship service at the Hayneville County Courthouse, where the jury had rendered its verdict nearly 50 years ago.
Carolyn Maull McKinstry, a graduate of Beeson Divinity School and author of While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement, preached the homily. McKinstry is a longtime civil rights activist who demonstrated as a young girl against racial injustice in the face of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Connor’s German shepherds and stinging fire hoses. She survived a Sept. 15, 1963, bomb blast at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four of her friends.
“I believe God was pleased with him,” McKinstry said of Daniels. He was an “agitator,” she said, who “stirred up those things that needed to be stirred up” and refused to compromise his Christian principles.
“He was called by God,” she said. “He gave the greatest gift, the gift of life. … He gave his life to save Ruby’s life.” McKinstry said she had never met Daniels, but “we are of the same body and of the same Spirit.”
McKinstry later told a small group in the law library of the Hayneville courthouse that the events of the 1960s had left her depressed for many years. “I had lost four girlfriends,” she said. “I was horrified for a long time.”
But as a young girl, she said, she was simply confused that people hated her simply because of the color of her skin. “But what could I do to change that?” she said. Asked if she had ever considered retaliating against white people, she said she had not, because of her Christian faith.
She said that today she remains concerned about confrontational and even hateful rhetoric. “I see this as frighteningly reminiscent of the 1960s,” she said. When people say it can’t happen again, she said, “I don’t believe it.”