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Dr. Raphael Cassimere
HIST 4552 - 351
June 27, 1994
Eagles, Charles W., Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. First edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 1993. 335pp.
To white Alabamans, in 1965, Jon Daniels represented the worst of the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement. A white man, a member of the clergy, associating with Blacks, even black women, and from Keene, New Hampshire -- Jon Daniels was an Outside Agitator . Tom Coleman was a white Alabaman, a native of Lowndes County; he represented the consensus of those who felt that violent resistance to racial change was justified.
Written by Charles W. Eagles, professor of history at the University of Mississippi, this is the story of how Daniels and Coleman came to be on the opposite ends of a shotgun outside a country store in "Bloody" Lowndes. Dr. Eagles is the author of several other books, including Democracy Delayed: Congressional Reapportionment an Urban-Rural Conflict in the 1920's , and is editor of The Civil Rights Movement in America . The research for the book includes many manuscripts, government publications, newspapers and other serials, news film, and interviews with close to one hundred people. Footnotes and secondary sources are included.
The killing of Daniels was an atrocity, but by no means unique, following the deaths of a many of other civil rights workers. It was overshadowed in the press by the riots in Watts. Coleman's trial five weeks later received scant treatment in the press, probably because of a major newspaper strike in New York City. This work is important historically, not only because of its treatment of largely forgotten events, but because it is one of the few books that examines the life and work of a civil rights activist who was not a leader. The book also considers the background and motivations of one opponent of the movement, and places both accounts within the context of a local community. Beginning with Daniels' childhood, the book proceeds chronologically to Coleman's trial, to the reactions to the verdict, and to some lasting effects in Lowndes County. Great care is taken to explore the motives of both Daniels and Coleman.
After four dificult years at Virginia Military Institute, and with much introspection, Daniels entered the Episcopal seminary. He seemed to find himself when he answered the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. Even though he still had one year to finish, he sought and received permission to conclude his studies while working in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Through his Christian witness, he sought to promote black political participation and to help them liberate themselves from white dominance.
White dominance was a way of life for Tom Coleman. Violence and the threat of violence was used by Coleman, and many southern whites, to maintain their minority dominance. This presented an almost insurmountable obstacle to Daniels and others civil rights workers. Without condoning it, Coleman's life is used as an example to show that he was a product of his environment, just as Daniels was.
The book proved interesting to read, not only because it depicted historical events in an interesting way, but also because of the author's story telling. Even though the murder of Daniels is expected, the event was over in a flash, and was still a shocking surprise; just as it was on the day it happened. Daniels and Coleman are portrayed as real individuals with distinctive personalities who were caught in specific circumstances. Daniels understood the hazards he faced, but seemed to underestimate their pervasiveness and seriousness. The tenancy, peonage, segregation, and violence used to oppress blacks were accepted by Coleman as everyday life. In 1965, and for fifty years before, not one of the 6,000 eligible blacks were registered to vote, in a county that was eighty percent black. "Even illiterate Negroes in Lowndes County are speed readers of handwriting on the wall" (p. 252).
In less than five years after Daniels' death, Lowndes County elected its first black sheriff, John Hulett. Tom Coleman developed a complicated relationship with Hulett, considered him to be a good man and one of his friends. He could never bring himself to call him "Mister" Hulett even though whites of a younger generation did. In one year of life, and then in his death, Jon Daniels helped lift the great fear in the Alabama Black Belt. Forty years later, this book opens a window to these events, less we forget.