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How a Chicago priest became an unwitting civil rights figure

Former Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe reflects on his friend and fellow activist Jonathan Daniels, who was gunned down by a segregationist in Alabama 50 years ago.



During the six months Richard Morrisroe was convalescing, barely able to move following gunshot wounds to the back, he would have recurring dreams about a particular night in Lowndes County, Alabama, when he was jogging along a dark country road. The stretch was not unlike the little roads he’d run around Mundelein in Lake County, where he’d gone to seminary. That August night in rural Alabama was foggy. He was 26, strong, and running just for fun. It was one of the last times, in fact, he’d ever run without discomfort.

Lying in bed as he slowly recovered, the priest would also think of Tom Coleman, the ardent segregationist who with a shotgun blast put an end to the life of Morrisroe’s friend and fellow civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian, before firing at Morrisroe as he fled. Coleman’s targets were white, but to the southern man both had betrayed their race by aligning with blacks.

The shooting occurred 50 years ago this month. Now 76, Morrisroe has managed to jog again, and is taking a new painkiller that seems to be helping. Earlier this month, with the August 20 anniversary of the incident approaching, Morrisroe left his home in East Chicago, Indiana, as he has several times over the years, to return to the tiny Alabama town of Hayneville to honor Daniels’s memory. Civil rights activists and members of the Episcopal church make an annual pilgrimage to a monument dedicated to the slain seminarian.

Morrisroe, meanwhile, became just a footnote in the history of the U.S. civil rights struggle, but the shooting profoundly altered the course of his life. Besides the chronic pain and psychological trauma it left, the incident ultimately spurred him several years later to leave the priesthood. He became an attorney, got married, had children.

So how did a white Irish Catholic priest from Chicago end up embroiled in the fight for equality in the south in 1965? A half century later, Morrisroe traces it all back to a fluke of weather.

During his teens to the age of 20, his summer job had been mowing the lawn at Mount Olive Cemetery, not far from the home where he was raised in Belmont Central on the city’s northwest side. The lack of rain during the summer of 1960 made his grass-cutting labor unnecessary, he recalls. So his father, John, called a friend, a fellow Irish immigrant who had arrived in Chicago around the same time, in 1925. This man got 21-year-old Richard a job on the near west side building the Henry Horner Homes, ten-story redbrick-and-concrete public housing structures. Morrisroe still refers to the job, toiling alongside two black laborers, as an “internship”—a period of learning and experience away from his virtually all-white world. Before that summer, the African-Americans in his life had been few and far between: a friend he’d made in high school, the ladies in the school cafeteria, tradesmen, garbage collectors, postmen. But his position on the Horner Homes crew provided him meaningful, casual, friendly daily contact with blacks, alongside whom he carried steel rods to be set by iron workers.

During the rest of the year, Morrisroe was studying to become a priest. He’d been an altar boy at Saint Ferdinand, and in the fifth grade decided that he wanted to be a man of the cloth. There was a nun he admired, and an uncle in Australia who was a priest. The church was family, and vice versa. He was ordained in 1964, requested a black parish, and was assigned to Saint Columbanus on Martin Luther King Drive. He felt at home in the parish that was, in many ways, a reflection of the one he’d grown up in, with its congregation of store owners, civil servants, teachers, and social workers.

The new priest developed a practice of walking around the neighborhood and visiting parishioners as well as Protestants in their homes. He wanted to know more about the older church members, about their early defining moments, about the African-American experience generally. Morrisroe would think back to the way he grew up, in living rooms filled with boisterous Irish Catholics from County Kerry and County Sligo—policemen, firemen, gas company laborers, and his father, who had a desk job selling insurance.

In March 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. issued a call for clergy and others throughout the U.S. to join him in Selma, Alabama, on the march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Morrisroe answered King’s summons, driven by the belief that black and white were equal in the eyes of God and should also be equal in the land. Then he returned to Chicago.

In August 1965, a Saint Columbanus parishioner, Sammy Rayner, invited Morrisroe to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Birmingham, Alabama. (King had founded SCLC and was its president.) Rayner owned a funeral parlor and was planning to drive down in style in a black Cadillac with his two sons and a few male education students from the college that is now Chicago State University. Here was an opportunity to hear the leaders of the civil rights movement speak. Morrisroe jumped at the chance.

Rayner had strong ties to the south. He had been a Tuskegee Airman. A decade after the war, he worked with and supported Mamie Till when she decided to display the mutilated body of her son, Emmett, an African-American teen from Chicago who was brutally tortured and murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi.

During the trip south, Morrisroe met Ruby Sales, a precocious 17-year-old who was working that summer for the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee, which was then closely affiliated with SCLC. Sales illustrates Dixie’s harsh reality in the 60s through her mother’s experience cleaning the house of a white woman in Columbus, Georgia. When Sales’s mother put on gloves to clean the toilet, her employer ordered: “You clean the toilet with your bare hands.”

To certain southern whites, African-Americans seemed to be trying to shatter what had seemed like an unalterable way of life. Blacks were “assassins,” in the words of Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, who had led the beatings on Pettus Bridge in Selma on what became known as Bloody Sunday. The beatings contributed to King’s call for demonstrations in Selma.

Morrisroe had three weeks for a vacation, and he figured he’d spend a week in Alabama, then visit New York with a priest friend.

Civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian, was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama.
  • Civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian, was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama.

At the SCLC conference he hoped to speak with John Lewis and Silas Norman. SNCC chairman Lewis had spoken at Saint Columbanus that spring. News cameras had captured Lewis’s image: a dignified figure in a beige trench coat at the head of the march that wasn’t on Bloody Sunday, when his skull was fractured by state troopers. Norman had been recruited from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin to work with the Selma Literacy Project to prepare African-American citizens to register to vote. For many black southerners it was an ordeal involving humiliating and arcane “tests” that whites were not subject to. Instead Morrisroe met SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael. (Carmichael became chairman of SNCC in 1966 and advocated for black power, a term he’s credited with having coined.)

During the conference Carmichael introduced Morrisroe to Jonathan Daniels, a white New Englander who was to begin his third year at the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge. Daniels was also 26, friendly, and introspective, and had also come in answer of King’s call. He lived in erstwhile public housing in Selma, helping SNCC with voter registration while compiling a guide to social services and welfare in the county.

In Birmingham, Daniels invited Morrisroe to come to Selma. That night, Thursday, August 12, Daniels got his new friend a bed with the family he usually stayed with in Selma’s Carver Homes. The next day they drove with Sales and another bright young activist, Gloria Larry House, to the next county, Lowndes, which was the new frontier for SNCC. It had earned the nickname Bloody Lowndes for rampant intimidation and attacks on black residents, who outnumbered whites four to one.

In Lowndes blacks had come relatively late to organizing. Carmichael and Charles Hamilton called it a totalitarian state in their 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Sure, the Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation in education was illegal; and Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination; and the Voting Rights Act had just passed the previous week, on August 6, to ensure that everyone over 21 could register without having to pass discriminatory tests—but all of that change was urged along by people many white southerners considered outsiders, the likes of activists like Daniels and Morrisroe.

“One time Stokely and I went into this [African-American] church in Fort Deposit, Alabama, for the first time,” organizer Jimmy Rogers recalled in 2003. (Fort Deposit was the county’s largest town and the Ku Klux Klan was strong, Charles Eagles writes in Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.) “When we got there, there were about 100 people in church. And we walked in wearing these overalls [the SNCC uniform], and it was about a second and there were only three people standing there. Church was over. . . . Everybody else didn't want to have nothing to do with us.”

But Rogers and Carmichael stayed and helped build the Lowndes County Freedom Organization with the three people who remained. And the activists listened to what residents wanted to accomplish. While their elders were concerned about voting rights, black youth in Fort Deposit wanted respect. They had chosen to picket three downtown businesses, the ones that treated blacks the worst, overcharging them, making them come in through the back door. They wanted to be treated as equals in a society one step up from slavery.

Around noon on Saturday, the young black activists met in a church and prepared to walk to downtown Fort Deposit. A few argued in favor of using violence to get their point across. “Absolutely not,” Carmichael told them, and had the teenagers give up any knives and other sharp objects. A hostile white crowd was waiting for them. Morrisroe and Daniels were the only whites who joined the protest. The picketing lasted all of a couple minutes; the demonstrators were arrested and hauled to the county jail in Hayneville.

A comrade found out that they had been moved because he could hear them singing freedom songs from behind bars. Morrisroe found himself in a cell with Carmichael. Daniels, who had never been arrested, was next door. Morrisroe had been locked up one other time, two months before in Chicago, for blocking State and Madison with almost 450 other clergy and activists to protest the reappointment of Chicago schools superintendent Benjamin Willis, yet another powerful white man who didn’t support integration. Morrisroe likes to say he met Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in jail—someone had brought in books by the activist, anti-Nazi theologian, and Morrisroe read them during his half-day jail stint in Chicago.

In Hayneville, Morrisroe and his fellow imprisoned activists would not be blessed by such a quick release.

The Lowndes County Jail was hot and filthy. It hadn’t rained much, if at all, that month, and the average daytime temperature was near 90, going down to 71 at night. The toilets were frequently stopped up, the food was inedible. They had some visitors, a few who brought home-cooked meals. Three demonstrators bonded out, including Carmichael, who said he needed to be on the outside to fund-raise for bail. The Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity offered to post bond for Daniels and Morrisroe, but they refused. They would leave with everyone else.

Daniels, Morrisroe recalls today, “was a little bit more verbal about stuff than I tended to be and I still tend to be. It was very important for Jonathan to articulate what was happening, whereas I often just went along as it happened.”

The prisoners passed a notebook among the cells. Morrisroe’s entries were wry, world-weary. He wrote, according to Taylor Branch’s history At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, “I sense little if anything that I have given to these my friends. I sense only what I have received. A year ago I knew a great deal.” Sales and Daniels, who had become friends that summer while working for SNCC in Selma, wrote notes to each other. Afflicted by stomach trouble, Sales was reportedly moaning in the women’s cell. (Such ailments, she told me, were endemic: “The movement’s drug of choice was Maalox.”)

The prisoners sang to let the women downstairs or the men upstairs know that they were still there and not voiceless. They sang for all the reasons that slaves in the fields had sung—to boost morale, to show defiance, to comfort, to combat boredom. They sang to the annoyance of their jailers and of white residents in town.

After about a week behind bars, the demonstrators were suddenly told they were free to leave. Some were wary. House recalled in a 2013 speech that she was suspicious: Were county officials letting them out so segregationists could corner and attack them?

Tom Coleman, center, flanked by attorneys, arrives at the Hayneville, Alabama, courthouse to stand trial for the slaying of civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels.
  • Tom Coleman, center, flanked by attorneys, arrives at the Hayneville, Alabama, courthouse to stand trial for the slaying of civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels.

As someone went to call for a ride, Robert Bailey, one of the activists, walked to buy cigarettes and matches at the Cash Store, a homely clapboard building where blacks were allowed to enter through the front door, and where they were treated cordially inside. Daniels and Sales, along with Morrisroe and Joyce Bailey, who had been arrested on her 19th birthday, followed with the intention of buying cold drinks. Morrisroe says now he was vaguely aware they were breaking southern norms against interracial couples, despite the fact that there was no romance between either pair—no hand-holding, no kissing. Morrisroe and Daniels were merely white men walking with black women.

Daniels reached in front of Sales to open the screen door for her. From inside the store suddenly they were confronted by an angry white man with a pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun. His name was Tom Coleman. At the courthouse, where he’d been playing dominoes, he had heard that the released activists might be stirring up trouble. He had just told the owner of the store, a white woman, that he was there to protect her.

Coleman yelled at the four activists, according to Outside Agitator: Didn’t they know the store was closed? He ordered them off the property “or I’ll blow your goddamn heads off, you sons of bitches.”

Daniels asked if Coleman was challenging him. Sales recalls Daniels pushing her aside, out of the way.

As an answer, Coleman shot Daniels at point-blank range with the shotgun. As Morrisroe and Joyce Bailey turned to run, Coleman shot Morrisroe in the back. Then he called state troopers in Montgomery to turn himself in: “I just shot two preachers.”

House recalls running frantically down the street, knocking on doors that weren’t answered. There seemed to be no one home to call an ambulance, but she believes it was a conspiracy among the whites in the town, according to a homily she read at the 2013 commemoration of Daniels in Hayneville.

Daniels was killed instantly. A black nurse and doctor came to Morrisroe’s aid. When he arrived at Montgomery Baptist Hospital, a priest was on hand to administer last rites. But a surgeon, who luckily had military experience dealing with gunshot victims, spent 11 hours on Morrisroe, removing his spleen and part of his lung.

The Cash Store, scene of the shooting
  • The Cash Store, scene of the shooting

“The doctors were telling me after surgery that I was fortunate that I was in pretty good [physical] shape,” Morrisroe says. That summer he’d kept fit leading a camp sponsored by Saint Columbanus.

As witnesses to the shooting, Bailey and Sales were afraid they’d be killed next. Civil rights ally Rabbi David Saperstein arranged for Bailey to fly to New York and stay with members of his congregation. Sales was smuggled back to Georgia later that week, hidden in the trunk of a car.

There were ceremonies for Daniels in Selma, in his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, and at the seminary in Cambridge.

During his recovery in hospitals in Alabama and Illinois, Morrisroe’s world again broadened. He had gone mostly to all-male schools, and says now that “the months in the hospital had kind of pierced my guardedly celibate lifestyle, in that I grew to know and interact and have a pretty good time with a lot of [female] nurses—nothing out of line especially, but just socially kind of opened up windows that I might not have opened had I not been in that situation.”

Looking back a half century after the shooting, Morrisroe says he never has held a grudge against his attacker. “I didn’t know Coleman enough to hate him or dislike him. Where would it get me anyway? There was no sense getting all bent out of shape over this guy and why he did it. It happened.”

“Did you feel it was God’s will?” I asked.

“A mixture maybe of God’s will and bad timing. It kind of tied my life to that place and time in a way that, had I not been shot, it would be something I would seldom think of.”

Recuperating in Illinois, Morrisroe was physically unable to return to Hayneville for Coleman’s trial. The first-degree murder charge was notched down to manslaughter. Witnesses testified that Daniels and Morrisroe had weapons—a switchblade and a pistol, respectively. A jury of Coleman’s peers—local white men—found him not guilty. In 1966 he told a CBS reporter he would take similar action were he facing other “outsiders from the north” in the same circumstance.

After the incident, then Cook County sheriff Richard Elrod dropped the charges against Morrisroe related to his protest earlier that summer in Chicago. Years later, Morrisroe says, Elrod “mentioned how he took heat for having dropped the charges against me. He dropped the charges when I was in the hospital because he felt that anything else would look like the city of Chicago was reflecting Tom Coleman’s values.”

Daniels’s late sister encouraged Morrisroe to go back to school, and he earned doctorate and master’s degrees in theology. But in 1972 Morrisroe left the priesthood—“honorable discharge,” he calls it. Now a retired senior trial lawyer for the Chicago Transit Authority, Morrisroe teaches business ethics and social justice at Calumet College of Saint Joseph near his home in East Chicago. He’s also serving as a part-time city planner there. He and his wife Sylvia have two children. He called his son Richard Jonathan in memory of Daniels. With the help of Morrisroe’s lobbying, Daniels was named an official martyr of the Episcopal Church in 1991. This year, Morrisroe’s daughter Sioban Amezcua accompanied him to Hayneville to memorialize and celebrate the life of Daniels. About 1,000 people attended.

There are lecture series and scholarships in Daniels’s memory, a public elementary school named for him in his hometown, a play about him, an arch and garden at Virginia Military Institute. He’s honored in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time at the Canterbury Cathedral in England, the site of more ceremony in June. He’s been the subject of two books, a documentary, and a play.

The crowd gathered to honor Daniels in Hayneville serves as a counterpoint to the racism that’s still apparent in the area, Morrisroe says. He and others who’d made the trip to Alabama for last week’s event were passengers on a bus that pulled off of I-65 outside Hayneville to get ice cream. The business, they realized, prominently displayed the Confederate flag. About a dozen of his fellow passengers went inside but came back empty-handed. They reported a sign inside that said, in effect, “Don’t shop here if you don’t like what the flag represents.”

Civil rights activist Ruby Sales credits Daniels with saving her life 50 years ago.
  • Civil rights activist Ruby Sales credits Daniels with saving her life 50 years ago.

The white supremacy of the past is all too familiar to the present, says Sales. She credits Daniels with saving her life. Witnessing the murder—and Coleman’s acquittal—began to shatter her belief in fair play and justice. That experience and others led her to found SpiritHouse Project, an Atlanta-based organization that uses the arts, spirituality, and education to work for racial justice. The organization offers two fellowships for college students, one named for Daniels, and the other for civil rights martyr Samuel Younge Jr.

After obtaining degrees at Manhattanville College and Princeton, Sales completed graduate work at the seminary that Daniels had attended. She studied the spiritual side of suffering and injustice there but did not seek ordination because she did not want to take on the duties of a priest. She is working on a memoir and a book about the role of lesbian professors in historically black colleges, and how their intellect and encouragement influenced students like her. And on September 21, SpiritHouse will release an in-depth report on “state-sanctioned murders of black people by police.”

She thinks about what Daniels might have become, how he would have grown and changed.

So does Morrisroe. “You kind of wonder,” Morrisroe says, “about the guy who got the other barrel. I knew Jonathan only nine days in life. I’ve spent the past 50 years getting to know him and his family.”  v

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