Honor for an American Martyr

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Documenting the commitments of a hometown martyr and the friends he left behind is a top priority this month in Keene, New Hampshire, as St. James Church remembers the 50th anniversary of Jonathan Daniels’s death.

A commemoration committee from St. James is bringing together five of his friends who were part of the Southern Freedom Movement. Together they put their lives at risk to bring racial integration to the Jim Crow South in 1965.

“This is probably the last time that we’ll be able to have all of them here, so it’s important to get their oral history,” said Bridget Hansel, a member of St. James and an organizer of commemorative events. “It’s important to see how they went on with their lives, what did they do, and how Jonathan’s death affected them.”

Among those the guests will be Ruby Sales, whose life was spared in Hayneville, Alabama, when Daniels, then a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian, pulled her to the ground and took a bullet intended for her.

Sales remains grateful to her late friend for saving her life, she said. When she preaches at St. James’s commemorative Eucharist on Aug. 23, she plans to remind worshipers how he gave up personal comfort and security for a higher cause.

“Jonathan’s martyrdom is larger than that particular day,” Sales told TLC in an interview from Atlanta. “It’s to have the courage to walk away from the king’s table, because he had a larger vision of what he could become and what the nation could become and what Christians could become. That’s the story of Jonathan. He was willing to die for that vision.”

In oral-history interviews on Aug. 22, Sales and the other friends will recall their commitments and leave a record for Larry Benaquist, a Keene State University professor emeritus who tells the story of Daniels in the documentary Here Am I, Send Me. That night, a screening of the documentary at the Colonial Theatre in Keene will precede a public discussion with Benaquist and Daniels’s friends.      

Recollections will take hearers back to a tense, violent period in modern American history. In the summer of 1965, the group of friends had to come to terms with death, Sales said, because the situation in Alabama required it.

“That was the deal we made with each other: that any one of us would have died for each other,” Sales said. “At least that’s what we said. I’m not sure all of us would have lived into it the way Jonathan did. But that’s what we told each other every day. We had to, to do the work.”

At the Aug. 23 Eucharist commemorating Daniels’s feast day, the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire, will be the celebrant. Bishops from Connecticut and Massachusetts plan to attend as well. After Eucharist, worshipers will undertake a Walk of Remembrance to visit Daniels’s grave in Monadnock View Cemetery.

Keene, a city of 23,000 in New Hampshire’s southwest corner, has held a thematic series of local events since Jan. 15, when Mayor Kendall Lane declared 2015 as “the year of Jonathan Daniels.” In April, for instance, a walking tour showcased the neighborhood where Daniels grew up and discussed the influences that shaped him. He was raised a Congregationalist and became an Episcopalian as a teenager at St. James.

“He chose to leave a safe sort of world in New England, in Keene, and going to seminary, and he chose to put himself in danger and go to a distant place that was not friendly,” Hansel said. “That to me is a symbol of the walk that all of us need to be thinking about.”

Sales, who now directs a racial justice organization called the SpiritHouse Project, said she hopes Daniels’s legacy will not be reduced to a “warm and fuzzy story.”

“People want it to be a story where this white man saves this young black piccaninny,” Sales said. “They don’t want to understand the essence of Jonathan’s journey and why he should be celebrated as a martyr.”

She explained that Daniels had broken rank with his peers by standing with blacks in protest of the status quo. His doing so made some Alabamans feel more threatened by the changes at hand, and he became a casualty of hate and violence.

“It’s a misrepresentation and a sanitizing of history to make this a warm fuzzy story,” she said. “I was in jail with an ulcer from dealing with the chronic violence every day. So this is not a warm and fuzzy story, not any more than Jesus’ crucifixion was warm and fuzzy.”

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Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels from Episcopal Marketplace on Vimeo.


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