Jonathan Daniels – Martyr for Freedom

When a shotgun-wielding white supremacist threatened Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old Black Civil Rights activist, in Hayneville, Alabama in 1965, Jonathan Daniels stepped in front of her and took a shotgun blast, dying instantly.  Daniels, a native of Keene, has been officially recognized as a martyr by the Episcopal Church since 1991.

Born in Keene in 1939, Daniels was attending the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge when Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by a police officer in Selma, Alabama, and police attacked civil rights marchers protesting his killing and demanding the right to vote.  At the call of Martin Luther King, Jr., members of the clergy and other civil rights supporters flocked to Selma to join the protests.  Daniels was one of them.

After a trip back to Cambridge, Daniels returned to Alabama to join civil rights activities, saying, “something had happened to me in Selma, which meant I had to come back. I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question…I had been blinded by what I saw here (and elsewhere), and the road to Damascus led, for me, back here.”  Assigned to Lowndes County by SNCC, Daniels threw himself into voting rights campaigns and also led efforts to desegregate services in the Episcopal Church.  After being jailed with 29 others for a week following a demonstration in Fort Deposit, Daniels, Sales, and two others were confronted by an armed man, Tom Coleman, outside a grocery store.  When Coleman leveled his shotgun at Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way, receiving the gunfire intended for Sales.  He died instantly.  Coleman also shot and injured Father Richard Morrisroe, who was trying to protect Joyce Bailey, another young Black activist.  Coleman was later acquitted by an all-white jury. 

In addition to the recognition from the Church, Daniels has been honored with a Keene elementary school named for him, a historical marker in Keene, and a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.  His story is told in the book Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, by Charles Eagles (1993) and a documentary, “Here I Am, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels,” released in 2000 by Lawrence Benaquist and William Sullivan.  (The documentary can be seen on Vimeo.) The City of Keene has an official Human Rights Committee, whose purpose is to “celebrate and honor the significance of the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jonathan Daniels.” 

Ruby Sales later attended the Episcopal Divinity School and is the founder of the Spirithouse Project, which uses the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice.

The Historical Society of Cheshire County has established a Jonathan Daniels Center for Social Responsibility.  It’s website includes more historical information and a walking tour.

Read more on the Episcopal Church’s website, “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.

Jonathan Daniels is buried at Monadnock View Cemetery in Keene, in Section C, Lot 34 S 1/2.