Pilgrimage illuminates memory of Alabama martyrs

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

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Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed in Hayneville on Aug. 20, 1965, after serving six days in the Lowndes County Jail for picketing white-only Fort Deposit businesses. For the last 26 years, pilgrims have remembered his death and those of other Alabama martyrs walking a path through Hayneville to pray at the sites where events surrounding Daniels’ death occurred.

Pilgrims from across America gathered on Aug. 12  to walk, pray, and “We Shall Overcome” in chorus, “Black and white together, Black and white together, Black and white together today. Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

The event commenced under the trees in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse in Hayneville, where the Right Reverend Glenda Curry opened with prayer. Afterward, pilgrims proceeded to the site of the former jail where Daniels and other picketers were detained after their arrest.

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Daniels was arrested in Fort Deposit on Aug. 14, 1965, after joining a picket line to protest businesses which served only white customers. On Aug. 20, he and the other picketers were released from jail and walked to nearby Varner’s Cash Store, fearing they were in danger and thirsty from the August Alabama heat.

Organizers said “deputized” gunman appeared at the site and Daniels was shot and killed attempting to shield 16-year-old Ruby Sales from the assault. The gunman was later acquitted in Hayneville by an all-white Lowndes County jury.

The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama partners with the Episcopal Diocese of Central Gulf Coast to host the annual event, which includes a stop by the former Varner’s store site and a celebration of communion in the Lowndes County Courtroom.

Lowndes County Sheriff Christ West said the annual pilgrimage rejuvenates Daniels’ memory and the values for which he died.

“It keeps [Daniels] alive,” West said. “Keeps alive his spirit and what he stood for, within Lowndes County and the rest of the world.  This is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and I think it helps keep that spirit alive as long as people continue to have a voice.”

Lunch provided by Mama Callie Greer Catering followed the prayer walk and for a nominal cost, attendees could purchase a southern-style plate lunch, hot dogs, and desert to enjoy during a respite from the nearly 96-degree heat.

Mosses resident Janice Patterson attended the event for the first time on Saturday. Patterson said she was invited by her friends, Barbara Evens and Cynthia Peyton-Carter, who have attended for many years.

The Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce participated in the pilgrimage and executive director Dr. Ozelle Hubert described the event as an important display of unity.

“We need to remember the lives of Johnathan Daniels and others who died in Alabama,” Hubert said. “Gathering together like this in unity is what it’s all about.”

Bishop Phoebe Roaf from the Diocese of West Tennessee served as guest speaker.

Afterwards the pilgrimage, participants were encouraged to visit the historical markers for Elmore Bolling and Viola Liuzzo on U.S. Highway 80 near mile markers 114 and 111 as well as the National Park Service Interpretive Center at mile marker 106 in White Hall.

Other Alabamians whose deaths were remembered during the pilgrimage include William Lewis Moore who died April 23, 1963 in Attala; The Reverend James Reed who died Sept. 11, 1965 in Selma; Virgil Lamar Ware, Johnny Robinson, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins who died Sept. 15, 1963 in Birmingham; Willie Edward, Jr. who died Jan. 23, 1957 in Montgomery; Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr. who died Jan. 3, 1966 in Tuskegee; Elmore Bolling who died Dec. 4, 1947 in Lowndesboro; Jimme Lee Jackson who died Feb. 26, 1965 in Marion; and Viola Greg Liuzzo who died March 25, 1965 near Lowndesboro.

To view video footage or gain information on the event’s history and future dates, visit diola.org/jonathandaniels.