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50 Years Ago Today, a White Priest Took a Police Bullet to Protect a Black Activist

MLK called it ‘one of the most heroic Christian deeds’

On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Daniels — a 26-year-old Episcopalian from Keene, New Hampshire — died to save Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old black civil rights activist, by taking an Alabama sheriff’s deputy’s shotgun blast at point-blank range.

Daniels was originally inspired by Martin Luther King’s call to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand voting rights for black Americans. When he missed his bus home after the weekend, he decided to stay and finish the rest of his semester in Selma. There, he stayed with the Wests — a local African-American family — and tried unsuccessfully to get Episcopalians in Selma to accept the Wests as new members of the church. In July of 1965, after Daniels finished his final exams of the semester, he moved to Alabama to become a full-time civil rights activist. He helped black residents register to vote and apply for aid programs, and tutored schoolchildren.

Daniels tutoring a young student in Alabama

Daniels tutoring a young student in Alabama


Six days before his death, Daniels joined 28 other protesters and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Fort Deposit, Alabama to picket outside of whites-only stores. All were arrested and jailed in nearby Haynesville. While juvenile protesters were released the next day, the remainder of the group refused to accept bail unless all were released simultaneously. The protesters stayed in the Haynesville jail for six days.

Upon release, the group had no transportation back to Fort Deposit. So while one of the protesters stayed near the jail to find a ride back, several others — Father Richard Morrisroe, Jonathan Daniels and black activists Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey — walked to a nearby convenience store to buy a cold drink.

While the store itself was one of the few stores in the area that agreed to serve non-whites, the group was greeted at the door by Tom Coleman, an unpaid sheriff’s deputy who was holding a shotgun while wearing a pistol in his belt. Coleman threatened the group and pointed his shotgun at Sales. Daniels pushed Sales out of the way and stepped into the shotgun’s path, killing him instantly. Coleman also shot at Father Morrisroe, who grabbed Bailey and ran. Morrisroe was severely wounded, but alive.

Coleman was indicted for manslaughter after the shooting. Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers unsuccessfully tried to have Coleman charged for murder, but federal judge Frank M. Johnson removed him from the case and expedited the proceedings so Father Morrisroe wouldn’t be able to make it out of recovery in time to take the witness stand. An all-white jury acquitted Coleman of all charges, and he died at age 86 without facing any further prosecution.

After hearing the news of Daniels’ death, 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.”

Daniels was officially recognized as a martyr of the Episcopal church in 1991, and is memorialized each year on August 20.

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