Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage: A Postscript

Alston Fitts (Photo by Lianne Rozell) 
Regular readers of this blog know that earlier this month I had the privilege of traveling to Alabama with The Episcopal Divinity School to participate in a pilgrimage with The Diocese of Alabama to commemorate the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels. Each day I offered some reflections on this experience.

Day Three included lunch at St. Paul's in Selma. At lunch I was seated at a table with Richard Morrisroe to my left and across from a vestry member who voted to integrate St. Paul's. That table talk (which also included Doug and Betsy Fisher) would have been more than enough; dayenu. (The food was excellent also!)

But then something truly amazing happened. Alston Fitts, a local historian in Selma and a classmate of Jonathan Daniels at Harvard University stood up to speak. Although Fitts is now 75, like great historians he didn't speak of the past in nostalgic tones - he transported us to that time and place. We were there, with him, as he shared a poem he'd written at the time. It was an extraordinary experience to be there, a thin and holy place.

I corresponded with Mr. Fitts shortly after that by email and asked him if he'd be willing to share a copy of the poem with me, which he did without hesitating. And then I asked him for something bolder, recognizing that he had not shared this poem widely and that something about this fiftieth anniversary had prompted him to take the risk of doing so on this August day. I asked him if I could have his permission to share it here, with my readers. He thought about that and then granted me permission to do so. Without further commentary, here is the extraordinary poem he shared with us, about his friend Jonathan Daniels.

Martyred in the author's home state
on August 20, 1965

Only in part have I left Alabama. Red dirt
still clogs my pores. My tongue is heavy
with the ashes of plantationed folk.
My soul bathes nightly in Hurricane Creek,
dreaming its exile past.
More than the clay is red there now;
Jonathan my friend lies in a long close box,
stripped of his shorts for jurymen to sniff,
his name spat on by cottonmouth attorneys,
robbed of his promise,
never to be priest, or father, or even thirty.
And shall I then return to that dark land,
where churches like shooting stars flare and die in the night,
and hear once familiar voices, now grown shrill,
condemn the victim, condone the murder?
And shall I then go once more to Hurricane Creek,
my father's refuge and my childhood's dream of peace,
and find it haunted not by ancestors alone,
but also by the accusing presence of my Yankee friend,
who strove always to understand, not to condemn,
but now is condemned to dwell among us forever,
his presence an eternal reproach.
If wastes pollute that stream,
who can ever hope to scour himself clean again?
O Jonathan, my poor dead friend,
you spoil us of our past!

– Alston Fitts  

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