“This day restores my faith in humanity”
-- Spoken by a 12-year-old
The 12-year-old who spoke the above quote was reflecting upon her experiences as a participant in the Jonathan Daniels and Martyrs of Alabama Memorial Pilgrimage which took place in Hayneville, Ala., on Saturday.
The event was organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama 15 years ago to pay tribute to Jonathan Daniels, a young white seminary student from Massachusetts who was murdered along with a large array of African-Americans including the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing.
Our day began at 6:30 a.m. when we met in the parking lot of St. Augustine’s of Canterbury Episcopal Church on the south side of Atlanta with a group that had traveled from Macon, Warner Robins, north Georgia and Massachusetts. The pilgrimage was organized by the Diocese of Atlanta’s Commission for Dismantling Racism and led by Bishop Robert Wright.
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sent out the call for pastors and religious leaders to come to Alabama to help forge the struggle for liberation in in that state and the young seminary student Jonathan Daniels was among the folks who responded.
Daniels came to Selma and lived with African-American families. The first family was threatened by their white landlords with eviction from their home, forcing them to find another place for him, but the courageous West family took him in and he lived with them during his time in Alabama and came to be considered an integral part of their family.
They lived in the same housing complex as his former family, but somehow managed to weather the wrath of the threatening landlords. Jonathan along with Father Morrisoe were the two white people who joined a small group of young black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members who staged a protest in the small town of Fort Deposit, Ala. against the mistreatment of blacks by the local stores. They were arrested and taken to Hayneville, Ala., to the tiny, unsanitary jail there. After a few days they were released without explanation.
This was not the era of cellphones so it took them quite awhile to make contact with someone who could come for them. The small group left the jail and walked to a nearby store for cold drinks and were greeted by Tom Coleman, a part-time deputy sheriff and shopkeeper,. He began cursing them and pointed his shotgun at 16-year-old Ruby Sales, Jonathan pushed her out of the way and caught the bullet meant for her. He died immediately. The group began to run and Coleman shot again, this time he hit Father Morrisoe in the back.
It took a good while for the group to get help because no one in the immediate area would allow them to use the phones. Though Morrisoe survived, he underwent many surgeries and spent many years paralyzed from having been shot. Coleman turned himself in, confessing to having shot two preachers. He was acquitted by an all white male jury for the murder of Jonathan and was never tried for attempting to murder Morrisoe and the others.
The pilgrimage began at the jail, goes to the store and ended in the courthouse where justice was not served in 1965 when Coleman was held unaccountable for murder and attempted murder. The services there this past Saturday were outstanding. Our bishop and the assistant bishop of Alabama, both men of color, led us in the celebration of the Eucharist which is our reminder to live without fear and to live seeking reconciliation.
That courthouse was filled with the spirit of grace and hope. The little girl’s comment that is noted above, grew out of her experience of that spirit which permeated the day and is a powerful reminder that we have to allow our faith in God to help us have faith in humanity.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.