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A Tribute to Jonathan Daniels ’61

The Life and Legacy of Jonathan Daniels ’61

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This year marks 55 years since Jonathan Daniels ’61 died fighting for Civil Rights in Alabama. His journey from VMI to Lowndes County, Alabama, exemplified traits that are remembered and emulated by the Corps today. On this anniversary, the VMI Alumni Agencies created a biographical video detailing Daniels’ time at VMI, what called him to serve and how he is remembered on post.

Who is Jonathan Daniels?

Jonathan M. Daniels, a native of Keene, New Hampshire, was valedictorian of the VMI Class of 1961. He was awarded the prestigious Danforth Fellowship for post-graduate study and enrolled at Harvard University to continue his study of English literature. Daniels soon realized that he was called to the ministry. While a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he responded to the pleas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for clergy to become more actively involved in the Civil Rights movement and traveled to Alabama to assist with voter registration efforts in the South.

In August 1965, Daniels and 22 others were arrested for participating in a voter rights demonstration in Fort Deposit, Alabama, and transferred to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. Shortly after being released Aug. 20, Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest, and Daniels accompanied two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a Hayneville store to buy a soda. They were met on the steps by Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who was carrying a shotgun. Coleman aimed his gun at 16-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her to the ground to protect her, saving her life. The shotgun blast killed Daniels instantly, and Morrisroe was seriously wounded. When he heard of the tragedy, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.” In the years since his death, Daniels’ selfless act has been recognized in many ways. Two books have been written about his life, and a documentary was produced in 1999. The Episcopal Church added the date of his death to its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and in England’s Canterbury Cathedral, Daniels name is among the 15 honored in the Chapel of Martyrs.

How We Recognize His Sacrifice

Yearly Pilgrimage

Each August, VMI alumni are invited to remember Jonathan Daniels ’61 in Alabama.

The Promaji Alumni Impact Group, along with the VMI Alumni Association, normally gather the evening before the pilgrimage. Here, alumni and VMI staff speak about Daniels and the impact of his actions.

The next morning, alumni gather at the town square in Hayneville, Alabama. From the square, they begin a walk to physically remember Daniels’ final days. Pilgrims meet at the Lowndes County Courthouse – the same courthouse where volunteer county deputy Tom Coleman was acquitted in 1965. The group normally gathers into a loose formation, sings songs and carries photos placards of Daniels and others killed while fighting for Civil Rights in 1960s Alabama.

From the courthouse, pilgrims make their way to the now-defunct jail where Daniels and his companions were held. After the jail, the group walks a few more blocks to the site of Daniels’ death, what used to be Varner’s Cash Store. At each stop, those assembled hear a reading of the events that led to Daniels’ death and – at the former store – the account of his death.

Pilgrims leave the store and return to Hayneville’s courthouse square, where alumni speak about Daniels and his actions.

More Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage Photos

Jonathan Daniels Award

The VMI Board of Visitors voted in 1997 to establish the Jonathan M. Daniels ’61 Humanitarian Award. The award emphasizes the virtue of humanitarian public service and recognizes individuals who have made significant personal sacrifices to protect or improve the lives of others. The inaugural presentation was made to President James Earl Carter in 2001; the second award was presented to Ambassador Andrew Young in 2006. In addition, one of only four named archways in the VMI barracks is dedicated to Daniels, as is a memorial courtyard.

John Lewis Receives Jonathan Daniels Award

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Daniels Courtyard and Arch

With the dedication of the Jonathan Daniels Arch and Courtyard in March 2004, his words will echo always through barracks.

Above the archway connecting barracks with the courtyard is a quote from Daniels’ valedictory address given during graduation for the Class of 1961. It reads, “I wish you the decency and nobility of which you are capable.”

Daniels is a “prime example of a citizen solider,” said Col. Keith Gibson ’77, director of the VMI Museum System. Though he did not serve in the military, he served in “an army with a religious ministry,” explained Gibson.

The Daniels Courtyard is on post as a quiet place of reflection.

Additional Reading

This booklet, created in 2015 as part of a 50th anniversary remembrance of Jonathan Daniels’ death, serves as a collection of stories surrounding Daniels’ life and his relation to VMI.