An Alabama County's Bloody Past

Commentator John Fleming tells the story of Lowdnes County, Ala. During the Civil Rights era, it was called "Bloody Lowdnes" because of all the violence there. One of the people who lost their lives working for civil rights was a young Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Daniels. John Fleming is the editor-at-large for the Anniston Star.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a story now about a crime committed more than 40 years ago and how it still resonates today. A story from commentator John Fleming.

Mr. JOHN FLEMING (Editor-at-Large, Anniston Star): During the Civil Rights Movement, Lowndes County, Alabama was so smothered in violence and oppression that people called it Bloody Lowndes. No one tries to hide that fact today.

On a hillside off the main highway is a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed by nightriders. Near the tiny town of Whitehall is a new museum dedicated to the people who were involved in the Selma to Montgomery march.

And down off the highway a few miles is the town of Hayneville, where in August of 1965, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed. People remember him, too. For about the last dozen years now, they have come from across the nation to attend what is known as the Jon Daniels pilgrimage.

This year, about 200 people came to the pilgrimage - some Episcopalians, some not - from all over the place: California, New York, Atlanta, Birmingham, Demopolis, Alabama. And from Lowndes County, maybe half a dozen - all of them black.

Why the lack of local interest, I wondered. So the other day, I ask an Episcopalian from Lowndes County, a white man. He took a deep breath - the kind that suggests he's had the question before - and said, these people come down here every year and stay a couple of days, drive their Mercedes and Lexuses back to their gated communities, and feel good about themselves. Meanwhile, we're left here to actually do something about race relations.

He wasn't angry. He was just like a lot of other people in Lowndes County, a place that has a black sheriff, a mostly black county commission, a black probate judge, and a crippling poverty rate. He wants to take care of today's problems and find a more prosperous way forward for the future.

So I put that Mercedes quote to one of the outsiders - the Reverend Judith Upham, the rector of an Episcopal parish in Binghamton, New York. I figured it might interest her. Jon Daniels had been her boyfriend, and she made it clear that she planned on marrying him. Instead, she grew old, never married and never had children.

She listening politely as I relayed the Mercedes passage, then said with a smile, there's some truth to that. Turns out that Reverend Upham also has a little patience with people who don't have the staying power. After all, she not only came here to help with the Selma march. When everybody else went back, she stayed behind with Jon Daniels.

But she also believes a lot of people, especially locally, have the wrong idea. The Jon Daniels pilgrimage isn't about remembering dark moments in the past, reopening old wounds, or heaping guilt on a small town in Alabama. It is, she insisted, a time to celebrate that rarest of animals, that person who not only believes in justice, but have actually tried to do something about the towering injustice he saw before him.

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SIEGEL: John Fleming is editor-at-large for the Anniston Star in Alabama.

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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