Dan Gilmore / August 20, 2015

50 Years Ago, Jonathan Daniels Died for Civil Rights

In doing so, he saved a life and paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Fifty years ago today, Aug. 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels shoved his way between Ruby Sales and a shotgun blast fired by an Alabama segregationist. The white seminarian died that day in the street in Hayneville, Alabama. But in doing so, he saved the life of Sales, then 17, and made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for civil rights in this country. Daniels, who studied at the Episcopal Divinity School, was not always supportive of the movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He initially opposed the effort to secure civil rights in Alabama because the Episcopal Bishop for the state did not welcome the effort. But Daniels changed his mind after he saw the violence in Selma, Alabama, and heard King’s call for clergy to stand beside the marchers.

In the summer of that year, he returned to Alabama to continue civil rights work by signing up voters. “I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value,” Daniels said. “[T]he road to Damascus led, for me, back here.” After being released from a hot, Alabama prison, a group of civil rights workers and Daniels tried to enter a general store for a cold drink. Tom Coleman met them on the porch with a 12-gauge shotgun, and ended up killing Daniels. But he was acquitted by an all-white jury.

The incidents in Ferguson, North Charleston and Baltimore keep the issue with us today. “To maintain freedom is a constant struggle,” Sales told the AP. “You can kill the person, but a people’s impulse for freedom never dies.”

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