March 4, 2015

1965. The Murder of Jonathan Daniels

The Courts and the Civil Rights Movement
Source: "Jonathan Daniels (front right) attends the March on Washington in 1963."

October 1, 1965


Traditionally, the Goddess of Justice is portrayed as a mature young woman draped in a virginal white robe with a blindfold over her eyes. The concealed eyes does not mean that "justice is blind," but rather signifies that neither the wiles of Eros nor the lightning bolts of Jove will be allowed to corrupt or intimidate her.

The unsheathed sword in the right hand of the Goddess symbolizes the power of the State to enforce her decisions, while the scales in her left hand represent the fairness of carefully weighed law in which justice is balanced with mercy. This is the idealized picture of the Goddess of Justice which most of us like to carry in our minds. It's reassuring.

And then, every once in a while, in some obscure courtroom—like the one in Hayneville, Alabama—events will conspire to knock Justice from her pedestal, befoul her robes, violate her body, destroy her scales, and amputate her sword arm so the weapon can be used to disembowel all corpus juris.

This is not to say that justice is dead in Lowndes County, Alabama—the spirit of the law is not murdered as easily as was Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student whom the Hayneville jury chose to believe to be a switchblade hoodlum so intent on assaulting defendant Thomas Coleman that the so-called "civilian deputy" was forced to blast the New England civil rights worker with a shotgun.

The indignation and shame which echoed across the country following Coleman's acquittal on manslaughter charges already has been bitterly expressed by Alabama's Attorney General Richmond Flowers. A Washington Post editorial said this morning that "It's all very well to say that Hayneville has made a spectacle of itself before the civilized world. But the tragedy of the situation is that Hayneville doesn't care. Its sense of justice," the Post continues, "does not extend to civil rights workers and Negroes. And since this attitude is common to many other communities, it leaves the country with a grave question of whether equal justice can be imposed from without..." The Washington Post says it does not know the answer to that question.

US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach commented that the Lowndes County trial of Thomas Coleman "is the price we sometimes have to pay for the jury system." However, Alabama's Richmond Flowers says he intends to act to redress what he called "the travesty of justice" enacted in Lowndes County, although he does not specify how.

As of now, the Hayneville jury has succeeded in making a martyr or Jonathan Daniels, but even after the case passes from the public mind, the Lowndes County court may discover that human justice, like the ancient phoenix, can flame back to life from its own ashes.

At 10 a.m. next Monday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States will open its 1965-1966 term. Chief Justice Earl Warren and the eight Associate Justices which make up the highest tribunal of the land form what lawyers call "an activist court."

At Monday's opening ceremonies, the newest Associate Justice, Abe Fortas, will take his seat, replacing the new UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg. In appointing Associate Justice Fortas, President Johnson preserved the "activist" balance of the high court. Meaning that the Supreme Court can be expected to continue taking the constitutional initiative to correct social evils and political wrongs in our democratic society.

Although Washington's legal experts say the Supreme Court is not expected this term to make so-called "landmark decisions" of the nation-shaking consequence of its recent rulings on school integration and legislative reapportionment, the justices will continue their constitutional concern and interest in follow-up litigation in the field of civil rights until Negro equality becomes a matter of custom as well as of law. On the docket in the new term of the Supreme Court are three cases dealing with civil rights.

In the first, Attorney General Katzenbach is expected to make a personal appearance to argue the Justice Department's case for the abolition of all state poll taxes, challenging such voting levies that are still assessed in Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama, including Lowndes County.

In another major civil rights effort, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is challenging the legal right of private benefactors to pass their racial prejudices on to later generations by making their endowments contingent on racial exclusion. The case involves the segregation of a park in Macon, Georgia, and possibly will affect Philadelphia's Girard College.

But the third and most far-reaching equal rights case pending before the Supreme Court could have a most intimate effect on places like Hayneville, Alabama and Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The Department of Justice will ask for jurisdiction permitting the federal prosecution of racial murder cases in areas where local prejudice precludes a fair and just trial. Department of Justice attorneys are expected to argue that, in such areas, racial killing not only constitutes an act of felony, but also violate the rights of the citizen as guaranteed by the United States Constitution, including the right of a fair trial for the just punishment of the murderer.

No one, of course, can predict if or how much of these arguments the Supreme Court will accept. But in the literature of the law, there is a proverb that goes: "Law cannot persuade...where it does not have the power to punish."

Hayneville, Alabama, please note.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.