Remembering Martin Luther King and a man he inspired
After he graduated from high school in Keene, New Hampshire, Jonathan Daniels — the son of a doctor and a school teacher — headed south to the Virginia Military Institute. There he became valedictorian of the VMI Class of 1961. Next came a stint as a Harvard grad student studying literature. But he felt called to be a seminarian and moved next door to the Episcopal Divinity School.
It was there, his VMI biography says, that Jonathan Daniels heard Martin Luther King’s pleas to his fellow clergy to become more involved in the civil rights movement. He responded by traveling to Alabama to help register African-American voters.
Daniels was arrested in August 1965 for being part of a voter-rights demonstration. “Dear Mum,” he wrote from jail on August 17, “an eminently peculiar birthday card … I have been in jail ever since Sat. — the Lowndes County jail in Hayneville, after being transferred from Fort Deposit, where a bunch of us were arrested for picketing. Should be out in 2-3 days and back to work … With much, much love, Jon.”
After he was released from the jail on August 20, he and a Catholic priest walked with two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a store to buy a soda. On the steps of the store was Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who aimed a shotgun at sixteen year old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her to the ground and stepped in front, saving her life. The shotgun blast killed Daniels instantly.
Martin Luther King said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”
In the years that followed, the Episcopal Church added the date of Daniels’ death to its calendar of feasts, and in England’s Canterbury Cathedral, his name is among the 15 honored in the Chapel of Martyrs. At VMI, one of only four named archways in the famed Barracks is dedicated to him, as is a memorial courtyard. Back in his hometown of Keene, a new elementary school bearing his name was dedicated in 1968.
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During the days of the civil rights struggle, small-town New Hampshire was a million miles from the American South. But the Daniels’ family home was near ours and his father delivered us into the world. So when Jonathan Daniels died, we learned about Martin Luther King and what he was fighting for. It wasn’t a million miles away after all.
A generation later, on the day our son graduated from VMI, we stood in the Barracks under the Daniels arch. Under the mighty influence of Dr. King and the memory of a man he inspired.