Writing this series of posts on race and responsibility came on me quite unexpectedly, and I am not at all sure where it may lead. I wanted to talk through some of what it prompts me to think and feel, and so I called my father. I wanted to ask him about one of his experiences during the Civil Rights era, when he was an Episcopal seminarian in Massachusetts and one of his activist classmates was murdered in Alabama.
Religion is not a regular topic of conversation in our family. Both of my parents came from families of faith, and yet neither my sister nor I was raised in a particular denomination, or even went to a formal church. I attended an Episcopal boarding school and a Quaker college, but in neither case were these decisions based on their religious character. Today Dad composes and orchestrates choral music that reflects a deeply individual and organic faith. I have vivid childhood memories of the Martin Luther King service he would hold in the school chapel, back in the days when he was a headmaster and before there was a National Holiday, that featured Stevie Wonder's Happy Birthday and my father's clear tenor singing Abraham, Martin and John:
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he's gone.
Dad holds a B.D. from what is now Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, but chose not to be ordained at graduation. I asked him if his choice was influenced by the death of his fellow seminarian and what he drew from that experience.
My father replied that the decision not to get ordained was made practically before he went to Seminary. While a Yale undergraduate, he studied religion and was a deacon with chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Bill Coffin was Dad's lifelong mentor, and the one who encouraged him to apply for the seminary fellowship because it offered the space to engage with the very questions of spirituality and social justice that made my father question whether he should become a minister. Dad went on to say that the murder of his classmate in 1965 "confirmed in my mind that the church had to get out of its sanctuary and that as a layman I could do more...and people should speak from the position of faith to do so."
Dad describes his own growing activism and the late night conversations with his fellow seminarians in which "we were honing our positions and our hearts on what had to be done." He remembers his classmate Jonathan Daniels as a complex man, and totally non-violent. "I was in a very different place than he was, in terms of active activism and spirituality" he told me. "In his liturgical way he could sing the Magnificat and feel as if that was his calling, a true Epiphany, and I wasn't there yet. I was studying religion rather than living it the way he was. I was much closer to the activism, on the verge, but there were too many easy rationalizations for not going down to Selma. They weren't about self-protecting - I was not as concerned about personal harm, though perhaps I should have been - but felt I had obligations at school...When he went to Selma with the 1st wave, a couple of seminarians went with him..."
Jonathan Daniels responded to Martin Luther King's March 7th, 1965 call for clergy of all faiths to come down and support their efforts of voting rights marchers in Alabama. Realizing that a brief visit by outsiders was not a sufficient expression of solidarity, he and fellow seminarian Judith Upham returned to Cambridge only long enough to request permission to return to Alabama for the rest of the semester. After taking his exams in May, Daniels went back a third time to continue his work integrating a local Episcopal church, living with a black family while he tutored school children and helped register black people to vote.
He and a group of nearly 30 protesters were arrested on August 13th, 1965 while picketing white-owned stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama. All but five juvenile members of the group were held in the Hayneville jail for a week in incredibly cramped, fetid conditions until they were released but without transport back to Fort Deposit. Daniels, along with a Catholic priest and two young black women, walked down the street to Varner's Grocery Store to get soft drinks, and were met on the steps by Tom L. Coleman, a state highway department engineer and unpaid special deputy who confronted them with a shotgun. According to one of the young women with them, Ruby Sales, Coleman shouted at them; "Get off my goddam property before I blow your goddam brains out, you black bastards!" He then leveled his shotgun at her, and Daniels pulled her aside as Coleman fired, killing him instantly. Priest Richard F. Morrisroe grabbed the other two young people and ran, taking a second blast to his lower back which critically injured him.
The killing shocked the Episcopal Church. It came two weeks after President Johnson signed the National Voting Rights Act into law, and just days after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles that officially left 34 people killed (28 African Americans), 1,072 people injured, and 4,000 people arrested. Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes record a conversation he had with his chief civil rights aide Lee White about a request for assistance to help the Daniels family bring their son's body back home to Keene, NH. My father was a pallbearer at the funeral on August 24th, and recalls linking arms along with Stokeley Carmichael.
Dad told me that he remembers preaching at chapel that fall - by then the killer had been acquitted of manslaughter - and that his sermon grew out of Matthew 10:34 "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." Dad called it "the hard realistic message that change would not come without sacrifice." Peace and social justice work continues to be a central part of my father's life and a formative example for my own.
This conversation was a great gift to both of us. We got into some of the racial themes I've been exploring these last few days, and particularly how we remember and internalize the past. "Memory and denial are kissing cousins", said my father. He said the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel are embedded in his heart:
The difference between guilt and responsibility is a key distinction for me. I believe that is where we will pick up the thread tomorrow.