Jonathan Daniels, US Army Rangers, and Equal Opportunity

On Saturday, August 15, I was among 1500+ pilgrims who traveled to Hayneville, Alabama to remember Jonathan Daniels and others who were killed in Alabama for the cause of civil rights – Elmore Bolling, Willie Edward, Jr., William Lewis Moore, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Lamar Ware, Johnny Robinson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Greg Liuzzo, The Rev. James Reeb, Willie Brewster, and Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr.

Bishop Santosh Murray leading the start of the pilgrimage.

Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who responded to Dr. King’s call for white clergy to come to Selma to show support for the march for voting rights. Daniels participated in the march and then stayed to register people to vote. He worked to integrate St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Macon. He lived in Selma with the West family. This photo is with one of their daughters.

DanielsDaniels and 28 other civil rights workers were arrested on August 14, 1965 in Ft. Deposit for picketing. They were brought to the Hayneville Jail. They were held in cells on the upper floor of this building, in deplorable conditions.
imageThey were released on August 20 with no explanation as to why. Daniels and three workers – Ruby Sales, Joyce Bailey, and Fr. Richard Morrisroe, walked around the corner to Varner’s Cash store to try to buy cold drinks and figure out what to do.  Tom Coleman met them at the door to the store and pulled a gun. Daniels asked, “Are you threatening us?” He pushed Ruby Sales out of the way. Coleman pulled the trigger and Daniels was killed instantly.

The store was torn down this year. This building was built at the spot.
This historical marker was placed at the site as part of the pilgrimage this year.

Coleman shot Morrisroe in the back as he and Bailey tried to run away. We were told that when an ambulance finally took Morrisroe to Baptist Hospital in Montgomery, doctors at the hospital refused to operate on him. A military surgeon stationed  nearby was called in. Coleman was charged with manslaughter (not murder). He claimed he acted in self-defense, and an all-white jury  found him not guilty.

Daniels was added to our calendar of commemorations in 1991. We remember him as a holy martyr for the reign of God. The Diocese of Alabama has offered this pilgrimage since 1999, I believe. Every year around the time of Daniels’ imprisonment and death, pilgrims meet at the courthouse where Coleman was acquitted.

By Altairisfar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

They walk from there to the jail where Daniels and his friends were imprisoned and to the site of the store where Daniels was killed. They return to the courthouse for Eucharist. The judge’s bench from which Coleman was acquitted becomes the altar for communion. At every stop, pilgrims read scripture, pray, and remember Daniels through his own writings and witness. For the 50th anniversary, about 20 bishops joined the pilgrimage, and Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry was the preacher. You can hear his powerful sermon here.

I thought about Daniels and his friends as I witnessed another historic moment on Friday, August 21. I serve in Columbus, Georgia, home of Fort Benning, where for the first time in history two women were among the graduates of the Army’s elite Ranger training course.

This photo was taken from a distance, but if you look closely you can see the yellow Ranger tabs on their shoulders.

A parishioner’s mother is a West Point graduate, and she kindly invited me to join her and sit with other West Point alums. These women came from all over the world to witness this moment. Here they are greeting 1st Lieutenant Haver after the ceremony.

Ranger photo 88
Ranger training is grueling. Soldiers must be able to do 49 perfect push-ups in 2 minutes, 59 sit ups in 2 minutes, 6 chin ups, and a 5 mile run in under 40 minutes just to get in. There are water assessments, night/day land navigation tests, airborne and demolitions training, a 12 mile march in full gear, and more just in the woodlands phase at Fort Benning.

A demonstration at the ceremony. He zip lined down the rope, stopped for a couple of chin ups, then dropped into the water.
Another demonstration – first aid rappelling.

Then students move to a mountain phase of training in north Georgia and to swamp training in Florida. Throughout the course, they are allowed minimal food and sleep. Peer reviews are part of the course, and failing a peer review can result in dismissal. About 50% of those who start the course never graduate, and most do not graduate on their first try.

For the first time in history, women were allowed to participate in Ranger training this year as part of a pilot program. 17 women applied. Two graduated this week, and a third is expected to graduate soon.

I followed this story not just because it was big news in Columbus but because it reminded me of the stories I hear about the early days of women’s ordination in the church. People wondered if women would be able to lead effectively, especially if we would be able to lead men. Many questioned whether standards were being lowered. Some felt that “it just wasn’t right,” though they couldn’t explain why.  I heard these same arguments and questions about the women Rangers. Today, women make up about a third of active Episcopal priests, but in the beginning just a few brave souls offered themselves for leadership. (Here is an article from the time about reaction to the first ordinations of women – before it was officially approved by the church).

Daniels and all the civil rights martyrs were warriors for peace. US Army Rangers are prepared for war. I realize I am talking about two different worlds – the world as it is, filled with violence and fear, and the world God intends, envisioned in Revelation, where the multitudes gather in unity around the heavenly throne. But our job as Christians is to help the world as it is become more like the world God intends.

The world God intends is in part a world of equal opportunity for all, where all people are invited to use their God-given gifts to serve others. It made no sense for the church to exclude half the population from leadership, and it makes no sense for the Army to do that today. (Here is a thoughtful post on this topic by the Dean of the Cathedral in Sacramento, a West Point alum).

The church has become stronger by welcoming the gifts of all people. The Army will as well. And God’s world will when it finally happens. Daniels and all the civil rights martyrs gave their lives for this cause  – equal opportunity at the voting booth, equal opportunity for all God’s children.

The most gratifying thing I saw in Hayneville was this sign (sorry the photo is not great).

imageThis is the Hayneville City Council. Though it could use some women, it was good to see white and black citizens serving together in the place where Jonathan Daniels was killed for helping black citizens register to vote. Thanks be to God – his work made a difference.

The church is a Ranger training school for the gospel, called to work as hard as US Army Rangers for the gospel to which Daniels and others gave their witness. Witnessing both of these events, seeing how hard people have worked, makes me want to work harder.  Amen.