Martyr and Killer: Two Lives and Alabama

Martyr and Killer: Two Lives and Alabama

Reviewed by Rev. Francis X. Walter

Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 27, 29-30

Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, by Charles W. Eagles (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993, 335 pages).

If it were a symphony, Outside Agitator would be in a dark and minor key. Critics would advance words like “measured” and “elegiac.” It would be said that the composer created, with competence, a majestic theme, sad and solemn. Sad because each advancing note led the hearer ever more deeply to admit the potential of humankind for goodness, yet all the while moving to a climax of death, a death of unimaginable human potential. Wiser hearts would hear beneath these themes elements of hope and resurrection.

It is the story of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminary student born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire, shot to death in Hayneville, Alabama, August 20, 1965. Until the publication of Outside Agitator the best account of Jonathan Daniels was The Jon Daniels Story, With His Letters and Papers, The Rev. William J. Schneider, The Seabury Press, New York, 1969.

But Outside Agitator is not hagiography. Martyrologies never include even tempered accounts of the ones who kill saints. Charles Eagles has won the trust, and perhaps the friendship, of Jon’s killer, Tom Coleman of Lowndes County. So this is the story of two men, the martyr and the executioner.

Tom Coleman is the son of Jesse Coleman. Jesse held both the offices of sheriff and school superintendent of Lowndes County. Jesse was sheriff for a few years just before Tom’s birth in 1910. Jesse retired in 1939 from a long incumbency as the elected school superintendent of the county. That was the year Jon was born and Tom was twenty-nine years old. Admirers documenting the sparkling young man who died in accord with his faith have not spoken with Tom Coleman. Coleman wouldn’t talk to those kinds of folks. But it is also because Jon’s friends and admirers have known that they could not sit down with Tom, even today, with the curiosity, humor, forgiveness and acceptance that Jon, the one he killed, would bring to such a meeting.

One other principal character is introduced. At first this seems an unnecessary intrusion—the reader is charmed by the personal revelations of this gifted human being, Jon Daniels. Here is the best that our nation and the Christian Church can produce. The reader doesn’t want to leave off about Jon. But a socio-economic study begins; charts from the Census Bureau appear. Then one sees how important bloody Lowndes County is to the story. It stumbles onto the stage, a character itself. It enters, not a vicious killer, but a sad loser, always making the wrong choices, always settling for less so that fewer and fewer will control what is left, always having less and less, leading a boring, unreflective, violent life, slowly descending into torpor, decreasing in population, resources and thought. Lowndes County is revealed, an idiot child, bruised and sick. Do not entertain the notion that Lowndes is an aberration in United States society. Who can say, “Well, it’s just the worst county in the country, but so what? A place like that has nothing to do with….” Nothing to do with where I live, nothing to do with Atlanta, or Pittsburgh, or Selma. It does have to do. Lowndes is somebody’s child. Our child, our lineage.

Eagles brings a host of other characters to life. John Hulett, the strategist of the Lowndes civil rights struggle, who became the first black sheriff of the county, becomes the focus of hope. If Lowndes County can produce Coleman, it also can produce Hulett. The Rt. Rev. Charles C.J. Carpenter, the then Bishop of Alabama, and the Rev. Frank Mathews, then rector of St. Paul’s Church in Selma, represent the Southern whites who would never kill or strike or curse but who remained largely out of redemptive action, paralyzed by a constituency going nowhere yet goaded by a set of founding principles that was moving others to engage present realities. Bishop Carpenter’s role illuminates how hard it is to define what is often glibly called a “moderate” position during the Civil Rights Movement.

(An interesting portrayal of Carpenter’s actions is

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“Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter: From Segregation to Integration” by S. Jonathan Bass, Volume XLV, Number 3 of The Alabama Review, July 1992, pp 184-215.)

Jon’s old seminary dean, the Rt. Rev. John Coburn, recalled in a memorial lecture in 1991, “…I was on holiday in Paris…completing a sabbatical semester…. On the morning of August 22 I received a cablegram…: ‘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 this was necessary. On the ticket counter 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.”

On August 22 a visitor worshipped at the Sunday 11 a.m. service at St. Paul’s, Selma. Behind him were the rear pews where Jon and black Christians in Selma had been restricted so that they would be last at the communion rail. With hairsplitting attention, Bishop Carpenter prevailed against those who would not have allowed black and white agitators to receive communion. But Carpenter despoiled his action of hope and faith by also allowing the vestry members to keep integrated groups in the rear so as to make their lips the last to touch the chalice. At this service two days after his death there was no mention of Jon, not one prayer, not one reflection on what had happened. After the service the Rector pointed out quite correctly another split hair: prayers for the dead were commonly only offered on Sundays at the previous early service, so Jon had got his prayer. While Paris blazoned Etudiant Mort!, Selma’s white Episcopalians, hurt and stunned, could not bring into the healing consciousness of worship the awful thing that had happened.

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.

There is a story of a nineteenth century Italian politician exhorting a peasant about the glories of a possible Italian fatherland. The peasant stooped for a clod from his farm, pushed it in the politician’s face and said, “Mia patria.”

The value in Tom’s way has shown itself over and over in the Black Belt of Alabama—after the Movement days—in the cooperation of local blacks and whites. This has happened often to the disgust of principled outside agitators. After the Rev. William Branch won the election for Probate Judge in Greene County, Alabama, he received word from a highborn white opponent who had held an appointed office in the county, that he would now serve Branch if Branch would have him. It is said that when asked about it this descendant of planters said, “Hell, our family pulled up and came to Greene County when the slaves got free and took over Haiti. We settled in Greene County. I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave again.” He served and county politics became much more interesting and complex. That is practical love, mia patria tending to the Kingdom of God.

Five years after Jon’s death, five years after the first blacks had registered to vote, John Hulett was elected High Sheriff of Lowndes County. That 1970 election also saw blacks elected coroner and circuit clerk and by the end of the 1970s blacks effectively controlled the county government.

In 1992 John Hulett, who was soon to retire, told two visitors that after his election he received a telephone call from Tom Coleman. Tom told Hulett he hadn’t voted for him but since he knew Hulett would get no cooperation from the former sheriff or his staff and would only find rooms stripped of records when he entered the courthouse and since John was the elected sheriff, he, Coleman, would do what he could to help him be a good sheriff. They could stay in touch by phone. Tom owned a scanner. His son was a state trooper. Tom could convey helpful information to John. But if Hulett ever breathed a word of this Tom would deny it and stop helping. Eagles confirmed this relationship and notes that Tom perhaps wistfully acknowledged that all through those years of collaboration he could never call John “Mr. Hulett.”

From 1970 until Hulett’s 1992 retirement the two

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men worked together. When asked if Tom Coleman was his friend John Hulett smiled.

That is the hope. That is the resurrection. At least to the eye of faith. It is this sort of real community that the South should bank on. And should celebrate. Not interest groups raving at each other to win a morsel from time to time. Sadly, those are necessary. But should we not more cherish those people, who sharing a common horror and common love, reach out together to tackle a common task?

This book ends with an acknowledgment of the action of the Episcopal Church in 1991 to place Jonathan Daniels in its liturgical calendar as a martyr. Jon is memorialized on August 14, the Eve of the Annunciation, the day of his final arrest in Fort Deposit. It was during the singing of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in seminary chapel that Jon decided to go to Selma.

It is to be regretted that the author had to stop and did not recount the politics of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church which, among other twists and turns in saint-making, had to set aside its own rules that a candidate for the calendar had to have been dead for fifty years. Jon’s recognition received the unanimous vote of both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. The present Bishops of Alabama and New Hampshire jointly presented the resolution. This was done in the presence of Richard Morrisroe, who survived Coleman’s second shot.

This action of a denomination, with present troubles of its own, provided a kind of counter trial to the one in Hayneville that acquitted Tom Coleman of all charges. Eagles’ gripping account of that travesty and the ensuing impotence of the federal government would have been balanced by the evaluation of Jon as a martyr of the Church.

Outside Agitator is about the United States of America.

The Rev. Francis X. Walter is currently rector of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Birmingham. After Jonathan Daniels’s death, Father Walter was sent by the Selma Interreligious Project to continue a ministry of presence in Selma and the surrounding counties.