To Hear About a Martyr and a Hero

I had been prepared yesterday to talk about kings and prophets, but instead got to hear about a martyr and a hero.


Friday was the day before Fall Break here in Sewanee, and my last class of the week was the introductory Humanities class. We had been reading 1 & 2 Samuel, a fascinating set of texts about rulers at any time but especially during the tumultous month before the Trump-Clinton presidential election. The class had had lively discussions about Saul and David, and how we should be reading the sources about controversial leaders; we thought about the difficulties in the story of Bathsheba and Nathan’s upbraiding of David; we thought about Psalm 51, listened to Gregorio Allegri’s haunting Miserere, as well as Bill Clinton’s reworking of the psalm in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1998; for some of us, Donald Trump’s apology was in the background of the conversation, too. In addition, we had also forced ourselves to look at the unresolved issues of justice and vengeance in the story of Tamar’s rape, and read a contemporary essay on it. On Wednesday, my colleague Eric Thurman had given a brilliant lecture on Amos and the prophetic tradition. “Prophets speak, but they also act in symbolic ways, deliberately to make us uncomfortable,” he noted, pointing to Jeremiah carrying an ox-yoke. He then asked us to think about Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem. “Is Colin Kaepernick among the prophets?” he asked, to much squirming.

It might make sense , I thought, to go over to All Saints’ Chapel to look at the stained glass windows in which David’s story is told and the prophets are portrayed. I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the Bible in the church, and see how different that might be from discussions around a seminar table. Two older gentleman and a young man came though the chapel just as I was beginning to point out the program of the windows to the students, how Old Testament stories are found in the Southern clerestory, and illustrations of Church history are in the North. I had not gotten very far when Tom Macfie, the University chaplain and and old friend appeared with the three guys who’d come in earlier. “Chris, can you come here?” he asked. “Bring your students.” Uh oh, I thought, I’m in trouble for not letting him know we were going to be in here.

We were under one of the Northern windows which depicts significant scenes in the history of the Episcopal church. In one medallion, a bishop from the Confederate states is holding a Rebel flag and shaking hands with a bishop under an American flag; it’s labelled Reconciliation. Corresponding to it is an image of Civil Rights marchers, Tom pointed out to us. You see three people with linked arms on what I take to be the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The young woman on the right, an African-American teenager, is Ruby Sales. Beside her, Tom continued, is a young white man. Underneath you see the words We Shall Overcome, and the man’s name, Jonathan Daniels, 1965. 

Jonathan Myrick Daniels (March 20, 1939 – August 20, 1965) was an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist. In 1965 he was assassinated by a shotgun-wielding construction worker, Tom Coleman, who was a special county deputy, in Hayneville, Alabama while in the act of shielding 17-year-old Ruby Sales. He saved the life of the young black civil rights activist. They both were working in the Civil Rights Movement in Lowndes County to integrate public places and register black voters after passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer. Daniels’ death generated further support for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1991 Daniels was designated as a martyr in the Episcopal church, and is recognized annually in its calendar

“This man is Richard Morrisroe,” Tom told us, putting his hand on one of the older men’s shoulders. “He was there as well.” In a calm voice, Richard began to tell us his story. That day in 1965, Jonathan and Richard (at that time a Roman Catholic priest) had been in the Lowndes County jail with several African-American civil rights protesters. Unexpectedly released in the middle of the hot day, four of them–Jonathan, Richard, Ruby, and another young back woman named  went across the street to get a Coke, and were greeted by a man with shotgun in the doorway whose name was Tom Coleman, a county deputy. What happened next is quite awful, and rather then recount poorly Richards story, let me quote Ruby Sales herself from an interview in 2005:

And it is a face that we have never seen before. And we have gone to that little store over and over. And of course, we’ve just gotten out of jail, and even if we hadn’t been in jail we had no weapons. And he said something like, “Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out,” and this man moved with rapid fire.

Next thing I knew I was being pulled back and tripped and fell. I didn’t know that Jonathan was shot. I just knew the shotgun blast had happened. It happened so fast I can’t describe to you, — I didn’t associate the body flying up in the air to Jonathan. I mean, my mind, it was happening so fast that I couldn’t even process it.

When I began to process it and come back to some consciousness, — I’m on the ground and I’m saying “This is dead. This is what it feels like to be dead.” I think in my head that I’m dead. But I realize that I’m not dead because the other shotgun blast happens. I hear Father Morrisroe moaning for water, “Water, water, water.”

Morrisroe was running with Joyce Bailey in his hands, — he’s holding her hand and he’s not letting it go for nothing. And he’s running with her, and he did not let go of her hands until he was shot in the back, and she kept running and he fell.

She runs around, — you know how in the south, — always there were these cars and so she ran behind one of these cars. This is the jail, she runs over, she runs out and then she circles around and goes around on the side of the jail very close to where I had fallen. And to her credit she did not leave until she could determine who was alive and who was dead. So she started calling my name, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby.”

And I don’t know how, but I managed to crawl on my knees. Because you have to understand that this man’s rage was not depleted. Tom Coleman literally walks over to [Morrisroe], he is over Morrisroe’s body, standing guard over this body, because [Morrisroe] is calling for water and he’ll be damned if he’s gonna let anybody give him water. Jimmy Rogers comes over and tries to give Father Morrisroe water, and the man threatens to blow his brains out. So he is not finished. He is on a rampage.

Joyce and I get up, I crawl over to her and we run across the street to the other group. And by now you can imagine there is bedlam. I mean people are frightened, because we don’t know if this is a klan conspiracy and people are all in the bushes. We just don’t know what is going to happen.

But what we do know is that Father Morrisroe is still calling for water. So, I go back over, and the crazy thing about it is that this man didn’t even realize that I was a person that he tried to kill. I sometimes wonder, — [I was] really crazy to go back over there, but I did that.

[Coleman] was threatening to kill everybody.

Daniels was killed instantly, and Morrisroe seemed very close to death. Indeed, a hearse came to pick up Daniels’ body, and Morrisroe was put on top of him and transported to the hospital, where he was in fact given his last rites. After much pleading, a doctor agreed to operate on Richard and saved his life after an 11-hour operation. After two years of physical therapy, Richard recounted, he learned to walk again, and to deal with what he came to realize was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Probably you can guess that Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, and died peacefully at home in 1997.


The other older man, as I come to learn, is an Episcopal priest named Francis X. Walter, himself a figure from the Civil Rights movement, and he has opinions about some of the Confederate fetishism that Sewanee has at times engaged in. The conversation strays to stories of the Mace, of Leonidas Polk, and other things.All this while, the younger man who had come in with Richard sits in quiet attention. He is Richard’s grandson, a student at the University of Buffalo, the same age as my Humanities students, who have been listening intently to this story of martyrdom and heroism–they are aware what a remarkable moment this is.

The hour is almost up, and as we gather our things to leave, Francis encourages us to look at a book  by Charles Eagles called Outside Agitator (University of North Carolina, 1993), about Jon Daniels as well as Tom Coleman. I look it up later, and in fact find Francis’ own review of the book, itself well worth reading. As he writes,

One of the knots that Eagles entices the reader to untangle is: what should be the role of prudence when one steps out in faith to realize one’s self and the best in one’s culture? Was Jon heedless, did he not know his behavior could get him killed? Eagles has many examples of Jon acting and speaking with blacks and whites as if racism did not exist, as if a reign of peace and justice actually existed in Selma and Lowndes County in 1965. If he knew the danger (and he did) what was his obligation to himself, God, and his Church to exercise caution? Just how much Kingdom should a person in extreme circumstances live in order to offer his due to God and humanity? The reader is urged to decide this in the case of Jon Daniels. It is to be earnestly hoped the reader will consider his or her own case. It is good to be prepared should such a time of decision come to us.

Jon led an examined life. Tom led an unexamined life. Jon wanted to explore agape. Tom wanted to keep everything the same, to protect the little he had. Tom protected a bunch of lies to keep an easy life. Jon explored the truth and was racked with sorrow that it hurt people for him to do so. Jon had vision. Tom could not visualize Lowndes County without an order such as his father provided. He got up from his courthouse domino game and killed to keep the only order he could imagine. Tom had a sense of place, local, un-nuanced. He loved the land of Lowndes County. Jon lived a lot of his life in the Spirit, and tried to love the oikoumene—the whole inhabited earth.

What can I say? We never did get to talk about Amos on Friday, but I suppose we will long remember this accidental meeting that illustrated more than any class discussion could the prophet’s most famous lines, But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.


Richard Morrisroe, Francis Walter, Richard’ grandson, and Tom Macfie




Prayer on the Feast Day (August 14th) of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr.

O God of justice and compassion, who dost put down the proud And the mighty from their place, and dost lift up the poor and afflicted: We give thee thanks for thy faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.

Image to the right, from The Rev. Francis Walter, a retired Episcopal priest in Alabama, carries the icon of Jonathan Daniels during the 2010 pilgrimage. Walter, who helped raise their bond money, had visited Daniels and the others jailed in Hayneville in the week before Daniels’ murder. After Daniels’s death, Father Walter was sent by the Selma Interreligious Project to continue a ministry of presence in Selma and the surrounding counties. (Courtesy of Dave Drachlis)

Postscript. It would be remiss me of me not to link to Annie Blanks’ very fine story on Her Campus about Ruby Sales’ visit to Sewanee in 2014. As her piece concludes, “Behold how good it was when Jonathan Daniels made the ultimate sacrifice so that Ruby Sales could live, fighting for a cause hoping that one day brothers and sisters of all colors could truly dwell together in unity.”

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Education, Music, Poetry, Race, Saints, Sewanee, Statues & Monuments, The South. Bookmark the permalink.

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