Reflections and Video on Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage

by | Aug 20, 2015

Last week, twelve Diocese of Washington pilgrims, including Bishop Mariann, joined 30 others from across the Episcopal Church to trace the path of the Civil Rights Movement for racial justice in Alabama. Our pilgrimage was sponsored by the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and marked the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white seminarian who was killed on August 20, 1965, after pushing aside teenaged civil rights worker, Ruby Sales, saving her life.

Early in the pilgrimage I was moved to tears looking at the footage of the Children’s Crusade at Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, and taking in the commemorative statue at Kelly Ingram Park.

Later, I was honored and humbled to walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday” March 7, 1965, where over 600 protesters for voting rights were bloodied and beaten by Alabama State troopers.  

On Saturday, August 15, we went to Hayneville, Alabama, the town where Daniels was killed, to pay homage to him and other Alabama martyrs. The remembrance included saying prayers and singing hymns at the courthouse where Daniels’ killer was tried and found not guilty by an all white jury; the jail in which Daniels and other Civil Rights workers were held; the site of Varner’s Cash store where Daniels’ was killed; and, finally inside the courthouse, where the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, and Presiding Bishop-Elect, gave a rousing sermon, quoting the conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, who said to the slaves she was leading to freedom, “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” Curry exhorted all present to “keep going” in the work for racial justice. The sermon was followed by a bell tolling ceremony, telling the stories, and lifting placards which pictured  the martyrs of Alabama. The service culminated with communion.  As we pulled out of Hayneville the day was powerful and exhilarating, until we stopped at a nearby Stuckey’s.

I was met at the entrance of Stuckey’s by a t-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate Battle Flag. The shirt was prominently displayed at the door, so it could not be missed, and read, “If This Shirt Offends You, You Need A History Lesson.” As an African American, I could not help reading the t-shirt out loud. To my dismay, the Shoney’s cashier, flanked with actual Confederate battle flags on the counter, glared and nodded at me. In that moment, I knew that I and all the pilgrims of African descent were not welcome. So, the whole group, all 40+ pilgrims, about-faced and kept our money in our pockets.

This incident could have shaken our spirits, had some of us not gone an hour later to the Dexter Avenue Memorial King Church, home of the congregation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led during the Montgomery boycotts. Knowing the church was closed for the day, our smaller group went there anyway to take pictures outside, and were unexpectedly, yet warmly, welcomed in by Wanda, a member of the tour ministry, despite the fact they were officially closed. Wanda led us in song at the threshold, gave us words of encouragement, and took us through the basement of the church into Dr. King’s office, decorated with personal memorabilia and pictures. It was amazing! Some of us sat in Dr. King’s chair, and I, for one, could hear the words of Tubman, Curry, and perhaps King saying, “Keep Going!” The juxtaposition of the menacing door at Stuckey’s , and the welcoming door at Dexter Avenue Church showed us the Holy Spirit at work and encouraged us to “Keep Going!” The work of justice and equality is not over.  “Keep Going!”

The Rev. Paula Clark is Canon for Clergy Development and Multicultural Ministries for the Diocese of Washington