Though voting rights were given to minorities per the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, many states in the South imposed subversive tactics like secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that made it impossible for most black people to vote.
On August 6th, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the “Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting. At the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, this law was designed to enforce the voting rights that were guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
(President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the Voters Act)
Jonathan Daniels, a white young Episcopal seminarian, also believed in Civil Rights for Black people as well as the simple right to vote. Attending the Episcopal Theological School (now Episcopal Divinity School) in Cambridge Massachusetts, Daniels along with fellow seminarian Judith Upham visited Alabama in March of 1965 responding to a call from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. requesting that Northern clergy support the current civil rights movement in the South. They stood for a week but experienced a strong calling that they must return to witness the continuing struggle for equal rights later that summer.
On August 14th, eight days following the signing of the Voters Right Act of 1965, Daniels and other religious personnel were with organizers who worked to have more minorities registered to vote as well as to protest businesses in Fort Deposit, Alabama that discriminated in hiring as well as unequal treatment of customers and price gauging.
The protestors were met by a crowd of white men armed with clubs, broken bottles and guns. The protest lasted only a few minutes as the local police quickly arrested everyone, including Jonathan Daniels and loaded them onto a flatbed truck used for collecting trash and taken to the jail in Hayneville, Alabama.
The protestors remained in the jail for six days with no showers or toilets. Daniels kept spirits positive by leading his fellow captors in hymn singing and prayers. On August 20th, jailers surprising unlocked all the doors and told the protestors they were free to go though no one posted bail or were waiting outside to pick them up.
While outside waiting for a ride, Daniels, a Catholic priest named Richard Morrisroe and two black demonstrators, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, walked to buy soda for the group at Varner’s Cash store where they were met on the steps of the store by Thomas Coleman, a county special deputy and his 12-gauge automatic shotgun. Coleman told them to get off the property.
Within seconds, Coleman unloaded his shotgun first pointed at Ruby Sales, however Daniels quickly moved and shielded her body and received the blast blowing Daniels backward. Morrisroe grabbed Joyce Bailey’s hand and began to retreat, but was shot in the back. Daniels laid motionless on the ground. Morrisroe would later survive after hours of surgery.
After the incident, Daniels body could not be found. President Johnson ordered a federal investigation of the shooting and to have the body found and returned back to Daniels family.(Jonathan Myrick Daniels stands with his fellow ETS student Judith Upham and Ronnie Fuller, a student at Selma, Alabama’s R. B. Hudson High School. (Virginia Military Institute Archives)
Coleman was brought to trial but was acquitted 40 days after Daniel’s murder by an all white jury claiming that he, Coleman, acted in self-defense. As Coleman left the courthouse, all the jury members in celebration shook hands with him.
Daniels once wrote, “I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and value.” What I believe this young seminarian said is that we can not just pray or send wishes from out comfortable homes that injustices or hatred or prejudice will just go away, for this is the misguided attitude of dispassion, the state of being emotionally uninvolved. We, as a nation, and more important, as a member of the human race, must act, must be a catalyst for change, and must show an unconditional compassion.
If the weather is bad this Tuesday November 6th and you don’t want to get rained on to vote, or if you don’t want to make the effort to vote even if the weather is pleasant, I want you to remember Jonathan Daniels who gave his life for another so she, Ruby Sales, could see the day when she could freely vote and be treated as an equal. I want you to think of those protestors who were jailed trying to simply exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot. I want you to remember the gun shots, the police brutality, the water hoses that were unleashed on our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters, as they marched for equality. And then ask yourself, how can I still be dispassionate.
Please act. Please vote.