The Murder of Civil Rights Activist Jonathan Daniels, August 20, 1965
On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Daniels and several other civil rights activists wanted to buy a coke after getting out of jail. A few minutes later, the 26-year-old Episcopal seminary student lay dead in Alabama, having stepped in front of a shotgun blast intended for a fellow activist, Ruby Sales. Daniels, a native of New Hampshire and a 1961 graduate of Virginia Military Institute (VMI), had come to Alabama to support the movement in Selma, Montgomery, and then Lowndes County. His murder received relatively little coverage, especially compared to the earlier killings of other white activists such as Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. Daniels was at least the 22 nd person killed in the civil rights struggle by white supremacists since 1963. Sixteen of the victims were black, and only a few of those cases received national attention. In the Daniels’ case, the shooter, highway worker and volunteer deputy sheriff Tom Coleman, who had also turned his gun on a Catholic priest named Richard Morrisroe after shooting Daniels, was later acquitted by an all-white jury.
A day after Daniels’ death, President Lyndon Johnson had a conversation with his chief civil rights aide Lee White that revealed a heart-wrenching predicament: What to do with the bodies of slain activists? The transporting of the dead out of Dixie had become such a problem that the White House got involved in a hands-on basis.
President Johnson and Lee White, August 21, 1965, 7:45pm
President Johnson: Hello?
Presidential Operator: Lee White, Mr. President.
White: Mr. President? Uh, [suppressing a chuckle in exasperation] I seem to have a penchant for bringing you bad news. Reverend John Morris from Atlanta, Georgia called me to say that the body of Jon Daniel[s], the fellow who was shot yesterday in [Hayneville] Alabama, is having a terrible time getting from Montgomery . . . a funeral home up to Keene, New Hampshire, which is his native home and where his mother lives. And because he knew that we had been so helpful in the case of Reverend [James] Reeb, he just wanted to know if there’s any way that we could help him out. I told him that he’d put me in a terribly difficult spot by asking me that question and I just, you know, I hated to say no, and . . . reluctant to say yes, but I would check into it. In the meantime, I’ve got our . . . some of our people trying to find out what’s wrong with the commercial means.
Why, you know, if he had been hit by a truck and killed, I assume that the mortuary in Montgomery would be making arrangements to get his body back to New Hampshire as quickly as they could, but because of the sensitivity of the matter, I did want you to know that I have that request before me. I got it about an hour ago. I’ve been trying to get some information. It’s very slow going on Saturday night. [music begins to play quietly in the background] Uh, I didn’t want to play it too hard one way or another without checking with you.
President Johnson: What did we do in the case of Reeve [sic]?
White: We flew his—the widow and the family from Boston down to Birmingham while the man was in the hospital and his life was hanging in the balance and there was a very real and urgent need to move them as quickly as possible. We did get a little critical mail on the question, and I think it just . . . this fellow who tells me that he has honestly tried many other places, and he’s dealt with both the mortuary in Atlanta [correcting himself] in Montgomery, and the mortuary in Keene, New Hampshire, and both of them are very discouraging about how long it takes to move that body from Alabama to New Hampshire, and he was hopeful that, uh . . .
President Johnson: [while eating] What does he mean, “they’re discouraging”? The train won’t carry it or the plane or what?
White: Well, he’s a little vague on that. I pressed him. I asked him if he was telling me that it could . . . how long it would take to get from where it is today to where it has to be and by when. He said the funeral is scheduled for Tuesday. Mrs. Daniel[s], the mother, obviously wants the body home as quickly as possible, and he just had talked a half hour before he talked to me with the mortuary in New Hampshire, and they were unable to give them any assurance that they could get the body back by commercial means, through either air or rail, in time for the Tuesday funeral. When I pressed him to say, now, are you actually telling me that it can’t be done any other way, he couldn’t say, yes, that he had tried and there was no other way. He had to say that his information was a little sketchy and that he was still going to work on it there.
President Johnson: Negro preacher?
White: No, sir. An Episcopalian minister from Atlanta. Very articulate, knew exactly what he was talking about. He knows he’s got a little bit of weakness, he was obviously a little uncomfortable in asking me for any kind of help in this unfortunate situation, but felt that since all the standard and the normal means appear at this moment to be blocked to him that he . . .
President Johnson: Look at the commercial and let’s take a look at it and let me know later.
White: OK, we’ve got…
President Johnson: How’re you coming on your calls on your Congressmen [about a military construction bill]?
White: Slow as the devil. The only one I’ve been able to talk to is [Maryland Congressman Charles] Mathias and he was appreciative of the call and said when it got to the House he’d sure take a good, hard look at it, and that he knew a bit about the problem and that he was, you know, holding himself open.
President Johnson: OK.
White: The rest of them, these operators are just having a terrible time locating them.
President Johnson: Thank you.
White: All right, sir.
Tape WH6508.09, Citation #8608 Recordings of Telephone Conversations—White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Transcription by Kate Bedingfield, Robert Derise, and Kent Germany.
- “History Lesson: Jonathan Daniels” by civil rights activist Joan C. Browning
- For information about other Civil Rights martyrs, see this exhibit at Civil Rights Movement Veterans website:http://www.crmvet.org/mem/41lives.htm
- See also Charles Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (University of Alabama Press, 1993).
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website