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MEEKS: The martyrs are still speaking to us

The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama hosts yearly pilgrimages to Hayneville, Alabama, to remember Jonathan Myrick Daniels and many others who were martyred in their state. Daniels was a young white seminarian from New Hampshire responding to the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Alabama to help with their struggle for justice. He went without hesitation.

Prior to responding to this call his life had been somewhat turbulent. He was the son of a New Hampshire physician and a schoolteacher. He was active in his church in his younger days, but as a teenager he confronted a storm of rebellion which led to poor grades and despairing parents. He did manage to graduate from high school and begin to pursue college. He chose Virginia Military Institute because he felt that the discipline in that environment would be good for him. He was correct, his time there was quite successful and he graduated with high honors. He began graduate school at Harvard and while there he had a major religious awakening. This experience led him to change his vocational focus and he decided to become a minister. He was attending the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he left for Selma in 1965.

During his time in Selma he joined with a group of black teenagers who were planning to picket white stores who discriminated against blacks. The group was arrested and taken to the jail in Hayneville. Six days after their arrest they were released with no transportation to get back to their hometown, 40 miles away. While one of the members of the group was trying to make phone contact to arrange a ride for them, a small group of four went to a nearby store to get sodas. When they arrived at the door they were greeted by the owner with his shotgun pointing at them and his orders not to enter his store. Before the group could act, he pulled the trigger, Jonathan pushed a young teenage girl aside just as that happened and he was shot in the abdomen. He died instantly. The owner fired other shots as the group was running away. He hit Father Richard Morrisoe in the back leaving him paralyzed for many years. The teenager (Ruby Sales) whom Daniels saved went on to become a major participant in the struggle for freedom and is the founder of Spirit House, which is dedicated to the ongoing quest for justice.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels is a saint in the Episcopal Church and the pilgrimage to Hayneville this year will be on August 15. Others included in the pilgrimage are Willie Brewster, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Virgil Lamar Ware, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, William Moore, Willie Edwards and Samuel Younge Jr. There were many others and some are not known, but these we know. On August 15, all who gather for the pilgrimage will be able to affirm the sacrifice of those who are being remembered while deepening their personal commitment to the work of peace, freedom and justice for everyone on the planet.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jonathan Daniel’s death and will be the final time that the commission organizes a bus to attend the Alabama Pilgrimage. Beginning in 2016, the Diocese of Atlanta which includes Middle and North Georgia will be organizing pilgrimages to sites of martyrdom in Georgia. These pilgrimages will focus upon sites where lynchings occurred and will include study materials and many opportunities to explore what this history can teach us about the present.

People interested in being a part of this wonderful day should go to the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta website to register and should contact me if you desire additional information. There are no charges for this trip but registration is required.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at kayma53@att.net.