Senator Shaheen Honors Jonathan Daniels on Senate Floor

On March 10, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) honored the life of Jonathan Daniels, a New Hampshire civil rights activist from Keene, who was killed in Fort Deposit, Alabama defending a fellow civil rights activist 50 years ago.  Shaheen’s remarks as prepared for delivery are as follows:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015, Jonathan Daniels Remembrance

Mr. President, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March this month, I rise to honor the work and sacrifice of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  He was a young Episcopalian seminary student from Keene, New Hampshire, who answered Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy to travel to Alabama to join him on this march. 

Jonathan lost his life five months later, in an act that Reverend King called “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”

Although Jonathan had originally intended to spend a short time in the south and then return to his studies at the Episcopal Theological School in Boston, he felt compelled by events to remain in Alabama through the spring and summer to register voters with the Episcopalian Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. 

On August 14, 1965, Jonathan was arrested along with a number of other civil rights activists at a demonstration in Fort Deposit, Alabama - a small town outside of Montgomery.  They had gone there to protest segregation in the town’s stores.  But their demonstration was over within minutes.  Armed white men from the town descended on them and took them to jail.

Jonathan and his fellow activists spent six days in the Hayneville County jail.  Many in the group were still teenagers. 

Despite the conditions, Jonathan somehow maintained an unflaggingly upbeat attitude and good humor.  He wrote his mother in New Hampshire a brief letter from jail, apologetically describing it as a “peculiar birthday card” for her. He wrote: “The food is vile and we aren’t allowed to bathe (whew!)…As you can imagine, I’ll have a tale or two to swap over our next martini.” 

He declined an offer of bail money from an Episcopal organization, because the amount would not have covered the release of the rest of his group. 

On Friday, August 20, the whole group was suddenly released.  Strangely, their bail had been waived, and no one was there to meet them or take them home.  The town seemed completely deserted. 

Jonathan and a few others walked a block away to a store to buy something to eat and drink.  As he climbed the steps of the porch to the store, he suddenly heard someone shout from inside and threaten to shoot if they didn’t leave.  Jonathan barely had time to react before the man opened fire, but somehow he managed to jump in front of his friend Ruby Sales, a seventeen year old African-American girl. 

He saved Ruby’s life, but Jonathan was killed by the close range shot that was intended for her.  He was just 26 years old.

The shooter called the murder in to the sheriff’s office himself.  He said, “I just shot two preachers.  You better get on down here.”  An all-white jury later acquitted the man, taking just two hours to find him not guilty.

While Jonathan was sacrificing his life for civil rights in Alabama, here in the U.S. Senate debate raged over the federal government’s role in protecting the voting rights of disfranchised American citizens. 

Since 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution had prohibited state governments from denying a citizen’s right to vote based on race.  However, in precincts throughout the South, black Americans were subjected to discriminatory poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of voter intimidation.  

In many places, town clerks outright refused to register black voters.

Just two weeks before Jonathan was killed, Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed electoral practices that discriminated against minority groups. 

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark law. And while this anniversary presents an obvious time for reflection, it is also a time to look forward and address the challenges still facing our country. 

The impact of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a critical section of the law requiring federal approval for electoral law changes in districts with a history of discrimination, is particularly troubling.

This ruling now allows states to implement restrictive voting requirements that will make it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots.  In fact, since this ruling almost all of the affected states have already begun attempts to restrict voting, targeting seniors, students and minorities and threatening their access to the polls.  

The right to make your voice heard as a citizen of this nation is a fundamental principle of our great democracy and should never be infringed upon.  We have a responsibility to protect this right and address these injustices.

While our nation has made a lot of progress since the 1960s and ‘70s, the struggle is far from over.  Inequality and racism remain in our society.  And, as long as discrimination and racial disparities exist, the full protections of the Voting Rights Act are necessary to guarantee the rights of citizenship for every American.

Jonathan Daniels should be turning 76 years old in March.  He is widely recognized as a martyr of the 20th century.  In Keene, his hometown, an elementary school bears his name. 

As we mark the 50th anniversary of his passing, as well as of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we must strive to honor his legacy by ensuring that all current and future American citizens can exercise the rights he died to protect.