By Diane D’Souza, Director of the Mission Institute and Lifelong Learning at EDS
As best I can figure it, unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, just about the time Bishop Rob Wright had us singing “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us” in the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, Alabama. I was among about 300 pilgrims who had come to honor Jonathan Daniels and other Civil Rights martyrs killed in Alabama. We had processed to the jail where Daniels and twenty-eight other young people, mostly members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spent a week in August 1965 following their arrest for protesting segregation in the small town of Fort Deposit. We had sung and prayed our way to the former general store where Daniels was killed and Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe grievously injured, when Tom Coleman, a volunteer special deputy, used a shotgun to threaten the small group—including Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey—who came to purchase soft drinks after their release from jail. When Michael Brown reportedly was raising his hands before a Ferguson police officer, we were rising to celebrate the holy Eucharist on the courthouse bench where Tom Coleman was acquitted of all charges by a jury made up of his white, male peers.
Has there been much change in the nearly fifty years since Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by an Alabama state trooper, or “Bloody Sunday” shocked and angered many Americans, or white northerners like Daniels and Morrisroe responded to the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join the Selma to Montgomery march for voters’ rights? We have elected an Afro-American president. Men and women of color are visible leaders of business, education, government, and the arts. Yet, despite some claims, we have not achieved a “post-racial” country—whatever that expression might mean. In actual fact, the disease of racism is alive and well in the neighborhoods I know best.
If racism were gone, the elementary and middle schools in my white majority suburb would not have stubborn achievement gaps between black and white kids. If racism were gone, Boston’s neighborhoods with the largest concentrations of people of color would not have the highest concentrations of poverty in the state: 42 percent of children living below the poverty line. If racism were gone, the 237 Boston shootings (including 35 deaths) in the year following the Boston Marathon bombings would have catalyzed a public outcry and a mobilization of police and government resources to fix what is broken. If racism were gone, we would not have, as Michelle Alexander notes, more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than we had enslaved in 1850.
In teaching about Jonathan Daniels over the past year, I’ve reminded people that he wasn’t very different from you or I. He was a person who made a series of choices, one small step at a time, being guided by a call to act justly and to walk humbly with his God. If Jonathan were alive today, he might be working alongside Ruby Sales and Cheryl Blankenship at SpiritHouse in Atlanta, supporting their consciousness-raising work about the “modern day lynchings” of black people by police, security guards, and self-appointed law enforcers. Or he might be helping 750 rural children have fun, advance their literacy skills, and learn from counselors raised up and mentored from their own communities at the Sawyerville Day Camp, a joint project of the Hale County community and the parishes of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Or he might be standing in jail with Rev. Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church and other Atlanta preachers and students who are working to repeal the “Stand Your Ground Law” in Georgia.
Episcopal Divinity School’s five-day Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage organized in collaboration with the Episcopal dioceses of Atlanta and Alabama was not designed to simply pay homage to a seminarian that our school is proud to call its own. Nor, humbled as I was to travel with fellow pilgrim Richard Morrisroe, is our purpose solely to honor those men and women, living and dead, whose sacrifices have contributed to one of our country’s most powerful protest movements. Our commitment to the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage stems from the simple reason, as Michael Brown and the town of Ferguson remind us, that there is still much work to be done. The past, including the stories of people we encounter along the way, help us learn how to create just, loving, effective change. The impressions and conversations we gather along the way challenge and inspire us. Perhaps enough to take one more step with greater conviction.
Learn more about the 2015 Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage (Aug. 12-16) that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jonathan Daniels’ death.