Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

50 Years Ago, A White Seminarian Gave His Life To The Civil Rights Movement


Fifty years ago today, August 20, 1965, Jonathan Daniels was killed in Alabama. He was shot while saving the life of a young black activist. Melanie Peeples brings us a remembrance of this civil rights martyr.

MELANIE PEEPLES, BYLINE: When white ministers answered Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, most planned to stay just a couple of days. Jonathan Daniels and his fellow Episcopal Seminarian, Judith Upham, thought so too, at first.

JUDITH UPHAM: You can't say on Monday, Tuesday, we're here to support you. We'll give our lives for you, whatever it may be. And then on the next Monday, you say, oh, gee, it's Monday. I have to go back to school. I have things I need to do. Goodbye, folks, have a good life. And we couldn't do it.

PEEPLES: So they stayed on and moved in with a local black family. In August, Daniels' work took him to nearby Fort Deposit. He went to picket white store owners who were mistreating and overcharging black customers. Roderick West was 8 years old when Daniels left his family's home that morning.

RODERICK WEST: Jonathan actually came back three times and told me and my brothers and sister that he loved us, that he wanted - school was getting ready to get started. And he told us three times - he came back three times. He said I want you all to make sure you study hard. Let me know what you need - pens, books or whatever. And he would always do that. But he always stood by us. And to me, he was just like a big brother.

PEEPLES: In Fort Deposit, Daniels and the other demonstrators faced angry white residents armed with clubs, broken bottles and guns. Within minutes they were arrested and taken to the county jail in Hayneville.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ain't going to let no policeman turn me around, turn me around.

PEEPLES: This past weekend, the streets outside the Hayneville jail are filled with 1,500 pilgrims who have gathered to sing and remember Daniels. Reverend Jayne Pool reads from the letter he sent his mother for her birthday.


REVEREND JAYNE POOL: (Reading) The food is vile. And we aren't allowed to bathe. Phew. But otherwise we are OK - should be out in two to three days and back to work. As you can imagine, I'll have a tale or two to swap over our next martini.

PEEPLES: But the next martini would never come. Without any explanation, on August 20, the jailors released the group without making them post bail. When the jailers refused to let them use a telephone, the group found themselves stranded and scared on the empty streets of Hayneville. Four of them decided to walk around the corner to Varner's Cash Store to buy a couple Cokes. Jonathan Daniels got there first and opened the screen door for Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old black activist. Standing inside the doorway was Tom Coleman.

RUBY SALES: And he said I'll blow your brains out. And Jonathan pulls me, and I fell. And the next thing I know, I heard a shotgun blast

PEEPLES: For a minute, Ruby Sales thought she was dead. But it was Jonathan Daniels who had been shot and killed at the age of 26 on his mother's birthday. Daniels' last act was to pull Sales out of harm's way.

SALES: To lose someone like Jonathan was not only the loss of my beloved friend, but it was a loss for America

PEEPLES: Despite threats, Ruby Sales testified at Coleman's trial, though he ended up being acquitted by an all-white jury. Upon learning of Daniel's death, Martin Luther King Jr. said "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I've heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels." For NPR news, I'm Melanie Peeples. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melanie Peeples
News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.