The film opens with a brief encapsulation of Jonathan's trip to the South, his work there, and his tragic death. It then goes to Keene, NH, to the beginning of his life, and probes the major stages of his evolution into a committed civil rights worker. The film includes interviews, archival footage, MOS footage, and a reading of Jonathan Daniels writings and letters, plus a narrator.
Jonathan Daniels (1939-1965), the son of a popular and compassionate medical doctor, spent his childhood in Keene, N.H. and graduated from Keene High School. In a decade marked for its conformity and social indifference, Jonathan quickly became the defender of those in need, an unusual trait in the l950's. Influenced by the social awareness of his parents, and by his readings in literature and in religion, Jonathan began his life-long commitment to humanity and social justice. After his graduation from high school, he enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute where, in his role as reporter and editor, he attacked the inhumane treatment of freshmen and the arbitrary rules of the college. He flirted with the idea of pursuing his study of literature at Harvard University (to which he had won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship); however, the call to serve eventually enticed him to enroll at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of l963, a time in which the civil rights movement had become the central issue of the country. Jonathan, in fact, joined the NAACP in l963 while at the seminary.
The portion of our documentary that focuses on Rhode Island explores his pastoral field experience at Christ Church in Providence, Rhode Island, from the fall of l963 to the spring of l964. As a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he worked with other young volunteers from Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design. This experience had a profound effect on Daniels' moral and spiritual development. Working with the poor and disadvantaged in South Providence gave him the opportunity to formulate and to put into action a concept of Christianity which involved social change, and a deep commitment to social justice. This section of the film also explores the significant role of Christ Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Providence in moving the Church into an activist role in the pursuit of social reform.
Jonathan followed the civil rights movement with interest and concern. Then on March 7, l965, when Dr. Martin Luther King called for northern clergy and students to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery, which had been brutally stopped that day, Jonathan answered that call. The film then follows his Alabama experience. He spent most of the spring and summer in Selma and in Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the most violent and segregated parts of the South. He participated in the famous March to Montgomery, lived with and counseled blacks, played a central role in the integration of the Episcopal Church of Alabama, and worked with Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee members to register black voters and to protest discriminatory treatment. This last activity led to his arrest, and when released in Hayneville, Alabama, on August 20, l965, he was shot to death by Tom Coleman, a deputy sheriff, as Daniels, a Catholic priest, and two young African American women were attempting to enter a store. Jonathan's last act was to push one of the young women out of the line of fire and take the fatal shotgun blast.
The last part of the film deals with Coleman's trial and acquittal, and documents the profound impact of Jonathan's life on the transformation of southern justice and the rights of African-Americans. His death, and Tom Coleman's swift acquittal prompted outcries from numerous individuals and organizations. President Johnson took particular interest in the case, and J. Edgar Hoover was given instructions to investigate evidence of a conspiracy. Many believe that Jonathan's death led to the passage of the l968 Federal Jury Selection Act. Others point to the positive impact of Jonathan's sacrifice on the voter registration and political actions of black Alabama citizens.
We interviewed over seventy individuals in over twenty states. Our interviewees include four associates of Daniels when he was working in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, Stokely Carmichael, SNCC leader, J. L. Chestnut, lawyer and author from Selma, Charles Morgan, former ACLU lawer. We utilized the Freedom of Information Act to access the FBI file on Jonathan, assembled archival photos and footage from CBS, WTN, and the Library of Congress. Much of our archival material on the civil rights period has not been used previously.