Marching with the Martyrs

August in lower Alabama is hotter than twelve hells. Maybe even twenty hells. Miserable, sweaty, wring-out-the-air hot and humid, so one can easily see the practicality of gathering hundreds of faithful together at high noon in August in Hayneville, Alabama, to march through the town, such as it is. Hayneville isn’t much of a town. There’s a grassy town square with a few trees, a courthouse, and a few nondescript stores. I’m sure there’s a Baptist church. It’s the South. Every town in the South has at least one Baptist church. And a liquor store and a jail.

I’ve been in the jail. Remarkably, not for anything criminal I did. On this particular day in August, I’ve gathered with other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, even some who claim no faith other than recognizing the witness of love. We all stood in the cells that day. Small and dark, with limited plumbing and even more limited views of justice. We stood in the cells because one very important person lived in a jail cell here.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan and a group of over twenty protesters had been picketing whites-only stores in nearby Fort Deposit, Alabama. It, too, has a church, but it didn’t have a jail, so when the whites-only sheriff’s department arrested this merry band of Christians demanding justice for all of God’s children, they were deposited in the jail cells in Hayneville. The juvenile protesters were released quickly, but the rest of the faithful, about twenty, languished in these cells. The plumbing backed up. The food they were given was rotted or infested with vermin. Never mind that the cells themselves were for two adults, not twice and three times that amount.

None of this probably makes the tourist brochures.

Five days later, the group was released with no transport back to Fort Deposit. Jonathan left the safety of a jail cell, with no air conditioning, no light, and no working plumbing, to walk with his friends to a cash store that stocked cold drinks and perhaps food without vermin. A young African-American girl, Ruby Sales, stood on the front porch of the store, probably watching Jonathan and his friends walk down the street. At the entrance of the store, Jonathan ran into Tom Coleman holding a shotgun, aimed at Ruby. Jonathan stepped in front of the gun. Ruby Sales walked away. Jonathan didn’t.

So every August, we slather on deodorant and don shorts and clergy shirts and other shirts and hats, and march through the town. I’ve never thought we were particularly welcomed. After all, we gather annually to remind the town of injustice and murder during the Civil Rights era. Forty years ago, white townspeople called Jonathan and his friends outside agitators, and I’m not sure much has changed.

We start the march with prayers for the martyrs of Alabama. The church has a nifty way of redeeming murder victims with the title of martyr. Martyr sounds better, but death, usually painful and unplanned, is still required. The sign-up line is conspicuously short. Martyrs used to be gored by cows and torn to shreds by lions in the Roman Coliseum, even fried in olive oil on a big slab of metal. Most of the modern martyrs were shot or knifed to death. At least humanity seems to have lost the public spectacle aspect of martyrdom.

After our opening prayers for justice and peace, for nonviolence and love, we march. Hundreds of us walking with poster-sized pictures of those killed during the Civil Rights struggle in Alabama that reiterate the firm knowledge that today and always, they walk with us. African-Americans walk with whites. Palestinians and Israelis from an exchange program walk. Saints and sinners. Women and men, gays, lesbians, priests, bishops, laity, even people’s pets walk. And because it’s so damned hot, we don’t smell good. Sweat runs down the rivers of our backbones and pools in dark spots underneath waistbands. We fan and wear hats to mitigate the heat, with little or no relief. It’s not a pretty picture, but then, the people of God have never been particularly attractive.

We march to the jail and pray. Some ladies have put wreaths of flowers on the razor wire fence. The jail is stark, as jails usually are. But delicate yellow and white flowers decorate the door where Jonathan walked through to his cell. We read the lesson from Galatians, the one that includes the oft-overlooked part of Paul’s writings: There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Inclusion at its finest and clearest. We stand in the profound silence of these words, then pray some more.

We are, after all, mostly Episcopalians, so we pray lots. We like to write our prayers or simply use the ones written hundreds and even thousands of years ago. We say amen, then look around for the cross, which leads us from one station to another. When in doubt, follow the cross. Good literal and spiritual advice I learned in seminary but still struggle to practice.
Jeremy, a priest friend, spots the gold standard and motions to the cross heading down a curved asphalt road blocked by police cars, so we march again, singing this time. We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome the heat and the insanity of racism. We shall even overcome our inability to sing together. We shall overcome our own egos and attitudes.

We come to the cash store, which is now an insurance office. It’s brick and square, like the jail. Frank Lloyd Wright missed this town, I tell Jeremy. The screen door is still there, probably the same one from some fifty years ago. A concrete slab serves as the porch, as well as the other holy space in Hayneville. We read the gospel lesson from Luke here, and we pray more, then we stand in silence. On August 14, 1965, at about this hour, Jonathan was martyred. His blood seeped into the concrete. His friends wept and ran. One of them took a bullet in his back. The man who murdered him laughed. Ruby lived. All on this coagulated mass of sand and water. So we also pray in silence, the kind of prayers we can only pray deep in our hearts, when words won’t get the job done.

Then, one by one, two by two, and even four by four, we walk to the porch. Some simply touch the holy space. In the church, any place where a martyr died is automatically holy ground. It can bless by its sheer power of love. Some of us kneel. Being prone to drama, I kneel and kiss the concrete. We end with a Eucharist in the courthouse. Here’s where we gather to share the celebration of Jesus’s life and ministry, to take his body and blood into our souls and selves. For all the love and song of the march, we end in the courthouse where Jonathan’s murderer was found not guilty by reason of race. A jury of white men, like so many across the south, found men not guilty of heinous crimes during the Civil Rights movement. People who went to church on Sundays, who prayed to Jesus, and who sang hymns to God, mocked the least of these who wanted equality. Southerners dressed up in white robes, looking quite foolish and silly, except for the guns they carried, to violate God’s commandment to love one another. Doors to churches were closed to those wanting equality. Their march to the Promised Land of justice was bombed, fought, and stifled, but not stopped. They marched and walked, as we still do.

Every step we take on the march, every word we pray, and every part of the broken body of Christ we ingest, we do in the town where the family of the acquitted man still lives. We live in a state where a few of the leading racists of the day still hold political office, still spend money, and still go to church. These people often sit beside fellow politicians who demanded justice and equality during the Civil Rights movement. They sit together.

Isn’t holy irony lovely?

I’m sitting next to the judge’s bench today. It’s serving as the altar of God. I’ve got a great view of the congregation. The marchers spill out of the jury box. No exclusive club sits there today. The people of God cram into the gallery, stand in the aisles, crowd outward onto the courthouse porch, even celebrate with us only by the words they hear through the windows. A quick glance of the crowd reflects images similar to those taken forty years ago, at the trials of the murderers of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, and Jonathan. But only a bit. The crowd is here, but races mostly sit side by side. No one is on trial today. In fact, we gather to remember that God is our judge and the verdict is love.


We read the names of the martyrs, those who died in love and service and in Christ’s name. I pray in thanks for their witness and courage and wonder if I’d ever be able to step up for God the way they so selflessly did. We even remember the names of those who killed them. I pray to God to help me pray for them, too. We shall overcome hate in all its faces, even when hate seems justified. Then I receive communion. The body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. We all do, the children of God, who’ve not behaved particularly well in this part of the household at times, but today, we’re holding love together fairly well.

We pray again, the final verbal prayer of the day. The thank you prayer at the end of the Lord’s Supper. Thanks for feeding us. Thanks for loving us. Thanks for trusting us with the task of going into the world to love and serve.

Then we sit together to eat fried chicken.

The Pilgrimage this year is Saturday, August 14th. For more information, click here


Maria said…
Beautiful. I wish I could be there to march with you.
JayV said…
This post was linked over at The Lead and I'm sure glad it was. Thank you. (I've shared this with my friends.)

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