#SAYTHEIRNAMES: The 2015 Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage and a Call to Action for Racial Justice

By Ashley Anderson

They blew off the face of Jesus. On September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Four little girls were murdered by Klansmen in that bombing. #SayTheirNames:1 Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Four children born to reflect the face of God. Four beloved, black children whose lives mattered. That morning, the bomb blew off pieces of the stained glass window of Jesus. The dynamite blew off the face of Christ. The glass shattered by hate’s fierce blows. As the bodies of the young girls were wheeled on stretchers, the face of Christ was marred by the terror of racism.
Wales Window
Two years later in 1965, following the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for white clergy to join the locally-led voter’s registration efforts in the South, Jonathan Daniels (seminarian at Episcopal Theological School, one of EDS’s predecessor schools), and other white clergy and seminarians came to Alabama to offer their support to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community (SNCC) efforts in Selma and eventually through to rural Lowndes Country, AL.

On August 14, 1965, Daniels was arrested with a group of SNCC workers as they picketed whites-only stores in Fort Deposit, AL. They were held at the Hayneville jail and were released six days later on August 20. While waiting for transport, a group of four people went to Varner’s Cash Store to purchase a soft drink on the hot August day. The group—comprising Jonathan Daniels, Ruby Sales, Richard Morrisroe, and Joyce Bailey—was met in the store by Tom Coleman, an unpaid special deputy. Coleman threatened the group and aimed his shotgun toward Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales aside and was hit with the full blast of the shotgun. He died instantly. Coleman then fired on Richard Morrisroe, who was badly injured. The face of Christ was shattered that day in Hayneville, cracked by the violence of white supremacy. #SayHisName: Jonathan Daniels.

Fifty years later, and after countless faces of Christ have been mauled by racism since the 1960s, I was part of a group of 50 people traveling through Alabama in a pilgrimage arranged by Lifelong Learning at EDS. This group of pilgrims consisted of ETS alumni/ae from the 1960s, friends of EDS, a contingency from the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and a group from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

From August 12 to 16, we visited historical sites from the struggle for racial justice in Alabama, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial, and the sites in Hayneville where Daniels was jailed and killed, and the court house where his murderer was acquitted.

We participated with the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama’s pilgrimage in Hayneville on Saturday, August 15. A group of 1,500 pilgrims streamed down the streets of Hayneville singing freedom songs and calling into presence those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and justice. The event culminated in a powerful Eucharist service in the courtroom where Tom Coleman was acquitted. The names of those killed in the 1960s struggle in Alabama were read, while people holding icons of each martyr responded with a resounding call of “Present!”

The act of saying their names invoked the power of their memories: Elmore Bolling, Willie Edwards Jr., William Lewis Moore, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Lamar Ware, Johnny Robinson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, James Reeb, Willie Brewster, Samuel Leamon Younge Jr., and those known only to God. Each of those names: a grieving family. Each of those names: a beloved community torn asunder. Each of those names: a potential for a life of change-making, world-healing stolen. Each of those names: a face of Christ shattered. Edmund Pettus Bridge

Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry preached from the courthouse focusing his words on the ongoing, baptismal work for justice. He proclaimed, “We were consecrated to radical discipleship, into the Jesus movement to change this world.” Invoking those Christians that have heralded the call for justice, Bishop Curry called the gathered assembly to live out the work of justice in two simple, mighty words: “Keep going!”

Marching through Hayneville, we sang songs of the civil rights movement, voices loud and tears rolling down our cheeks. The song rang out: “We shall overcome, someday.” Someday cannot come soon enough. How many more names will we have to invoke? How long will we allow for the face of Christ to be shot through with racist brutality? It is past time to live into our baptism, which calls us to set the world alight with love. Bishop Curry encouraged pilgrims to discern how God is calling us to be part of this conflagration of love, upending systems of oppression and building systems of healing. We each have a role in this great turning, pushing from where we are. Each of us asking ourselves: What works of justice is your baptism calling you to today?

Despite the seemingly unbreakable power of white supremacy, we are called to proclaim the gospel that the God of the Christians is the God of the oppressed—the God who is healing us of all our oppression. We proclaim this gospel with our bodies, in our myriad tones and histories. We proclaim it by acts of risk, saying that we will not allow some lives to be more valuable than other lives. We will say it, “Black Lives Matter.” Not only as a hashtag, but as an act of resistance to the sinful systems of white supremacy. We will speak their names. We will honor the dead in our work for justice. 

Ashley Anderson is manager of program initiatives at Episcopal Divinity School and a deacon at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. She is a graduate of the Boston University School of Theology and School of Social Work. This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of EDS Now.

Images from top to bottom: 1. Wales window at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham 2. Pilgrims cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Photos credited to Linda Kauffman)

1. #SayTheirNames, along with #BlackLivesMatter, is a social media hashtag in the Movement for Black Lives.