The Jonathan Daniels Story: A Personal Perspective

John Coburn

The following are excerpts from the inaugural Jonathan Daniels Lecture. It was delivered on October 23, 1991, by the late John Bowen Coburn (pictured left), retired bishop of Masschusetts and former dean of Episcopal Theological School. A full transcript of the Lecture is available here.

Jonathan Daniels’s martyrdom was a profound influence on everyone—students, professors, trustees, staff—who belonged to this school in 1965. It took a long time to realize he was a martyr. It still does. He was just a typical, questioning, struggling student, trying to make sense out of the issues, conflicts and injustices of our society, to make sense out of the conflicts and turmoil within himself, and to make sense out of the record of God in the Bible and the spirit of God he sensed within himself.

He wanted to know—just as we want to know—what on earth God wanted him to do. He was looking—as we so often do, as generations of faithful and unfaithful people have—for a sign.

To say—as it has been said by a number of social activists—that Jon was killed because he was a civil rights worker is, on the one hand, true; on the other is false or, more accurately, inadequate.

It is perfectly clear that he made his decisions because of his conviction that that was what God wanted him to do. His action was in response to God. That was the distinguishing characteristic of his Christian life—and death. “I must go to Selma.”

So he went.

* * * * *

When he went to Selma, I was on holiday in Paris with my family completing a sabbatical semester studying theological education in the Church of England. (One thing I learned was that I was glad to be involved in American theological education.)

On the morning of August 22 I received a cablegram from Dr. Guthrie: “Jonathan Daniels murdered in Alabama. Service in Keene, New Hampshire on August 24.” When I undertook to change my plane reservations, I was asked why was this necessary.     On the ticket counter there was a newspaper: on the front-page an article about the American “etudiant mort.” I said, “That is why I am returning.” In five minutes I had my ticket and set off for the Orly airport.

While waiting for the plane I wrote in a little notebook I carried with me: “Douglas Steere says, ‘The more you pray the better it goes, the less you pray the worse it goes.’”

Then this note: “Prayer is responding to God, talking with God, brooding with God, thinking with God’s spirit, aware of Christ, his life and his death, and how to apply to my own life and concern. Especially now how to act for and with Jonathan Daniels. May I act in accordance with your will, your spirit, your love. Thank you for him and keep an eye on him.”

So to return to Boston and prepare for the funeral service in St. James’s church in Keene, New Hampshire, Jonathan’s church, on August 24, 1965. The School had its own Memorial Service the following day, attended by members of this community, and the wider Cambridge community, and several of the young black people from Selma, some of whom had been in jail with Jonathan in Hayneville.

* * * * *

On October 21 the Bishop of New Hampshire and I flew to Selma to participate in an ecumenical memorial service in Brown’s Chapel.

On our way to Selma we had gone to Montgomery to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to see Fr. Morrisroe, who was being treated for gunshot wounds sustained when Jonathan was murdered. We had prayers with him and talked briefly with an FBI agent seated outside his door. We then drove to Hayneville to see the store from which Coleman came out shooting the gun which killed Jon and wounded Fr. Morrisroe. So on to Selma to register in a black motel on the black side of town.

The next day we met with various black groups and especially with representatives of the black church. We learned that white church people and black church people met infrequently and that there was no on-going inter-racial, ecumenical association—neither ministerial nor lay. The main street provided an unofficial but clearly defined barrier between the white and black communities.

Brown’s Chapel had been the Chapel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had led his people in preparing them spiritually for the march from Selma to Montgomery. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Jon and Judy Upham had worshipped, accompanied at times with some black youngsters, had decided it would not have a memorial service.

The service was conducted primarily by black clergy, the congregation was overwhelmingly black, testimonials and remembrances were given almost entirely by black friends of Jon and Judy. Bishop Hall and I also spoke—he of what Jon had meant in Keene and I of his life in the school in Cambridge.

The singing of hymns, the reading of the scripture, the prayers and the deep sense of a spirit-filled congregation mourning a loved one and still praising the Holy One helped us move on in our spirits to thank God for Jon and to praise Jon and God together. We concluded with “We Shall Overcome,” holding hands and swaying. It was not a typical Episcopal service, but powerful beyond description.

Saturday morning I spent on the streets in the white side of town, trying my hand at voter registration. It was not much of a hand but it did give me some sense of the difficulties white persons as well as blacks had in trying to persuade blacks to register. I was paired with a white young woman working with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who would urge the blacks to vote by using this phrase, which I heard for the first time, “So long as you are not free, I am not free. Register to vote and take a big step toward freedom.” It was a fascinating and largely frustrating morning.

That evening the vestry joined us for a buffet supper and discussion which pretty much followed the pattern of the afternoon. Finally, toward the end of the evening, one of the vestrymen said, “Well, Dean, you have heard us out and we have heard you out. What do you think we can do to help this painful situation?”

“The first obvious step,” I responded, “is to meet on some kind of regular basis with some of the black clergy and their congregations. They have no idea that a white vestry such as you would ever consider such a meeting. I have no doubt whatsoever that they would welcome it.

“Nothing will happen to the ‘situation’ without such meetings beginning—black and white clergy, black and white lay people. Christian people simply meeting. All you have to do is begin,” I concluded.

The next morning I seated myself in the church, separated by several pews from the other worshippers. Surprisingly, during the announcement period the rector recognized me, and asked if I would like to say a few words. I did speak for about ten minutes, explaining the type of person Jon was and what he had hoped to accomplish during his days in Selma. My words were received with what I can only say was a “cool reserve.” Later on, after the service, on the steps outside the church, the only comment I can recall was from a distinguished looking elderly gentleman who said, “Dean, why can't you leave us alone?” “Because,” I said, “Jonathan's death won’t leave us alone.” He didn’t seem as impressed with those words as I was.

* * * * *

In the weeks that followed, the School was visited by Will Campbell, the civil rights worker from Nashville, Tennessee, self-styled “chaplain to the red-necks.” Actually he invited himself because as he said, “I figured all those northern boys and girls were in a lot of pain and it might be good for them to talk with a southern sinful preacher who loves—or tries to love—all sinners, black, white, or whatever.” His presence was a genuine catharsis.

Not so happily received was Bishop Murray, coadjutor to Bishop Carpenter of Alabama. Actually, I had invited him some time before Jon’s murder and he had accepted. When that occurred, I called to ask him if he would now like to withdraw his acceptance. “No,” he replied. “I said I will come. I'll come.”

It was not an entirely congenial visit. Our students criticized the southern church mentality which caused Jon and Judy to feel excluded from the community, and the Bishop tried to explain why St. Paul’s was not integrated and why Bishop Carpenter acted as he had. Bishop Murray spoke with courtesy, sympathy, and tried to explain rather than persuade. The students weren’t quite so courteous but were glad when the visit was over. So was I.

The third visitor was Stokley Carmichael, leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Lowndes County, a companion of Jonathan, and teacher of how to conduct yourself in the deep, rural, black South—how, for example, to drive at night on country roads with lights off.

He was electric—partly because he had been so close to Jon, spoke affectionately and sorrowfully of him; and partly because he was so deeply concerned about the racial distortions in our society. He was clearly one of the black charismatic leaders of the future.

It was that evening that I heard the words “black power” for the first time. As he used them they were a natural extension of the democratic process, and there was no need for white people to be afraid.

It was a memorable evening.