But Let Judgment Run Down As Waters

It was an unseasonably warm winter day some years ago, and for some reason, the elementary school was out which meant I had the kids for the afternoon. My wife had been minding them earlier in the day while I was teaching my class up in Gailor Hall, and now we were down below Gailor Hall, in the playground—not the nice one that’s there now, but the old sad playground, with the wooden structures made of extra-splintery wood like the one called The Ark that served as a delightful home for hornets’ nests. Mostly the boys wanted to play in the muddy stream by the parking lot. A girl I recognized from Joseph’s class was also there with her mother, and off they all went to float sticks down the stream and gather rocks up to make a dam.

This was in the time before iPhones and so, rather than retreat into my device to check the Facebook accounts of people who had been friends of mine in middle school whom I would not recognize if they were sitting beside me, I struck up a conversation with the person who was in fact beside me, the mother of Joseph’s classmate. I wonder if you have ever had this experience? To begin a conversation with not exactly a stranger, but a familiar stranger, or familiar enough that you feel like you occupy in some respect similar stations in life, perhaps even similar perspectives on the world and its ways, only to realize a little way into it that the person you’re talking to is either completely nuts or something of a genius?

The conversation didn’t start out that way. We introduced ourselves to one another, talked a little about the kids, the kids’ teachers, the weather, things like that. She then asked me what I did.

“I teach at the University.”

“Really, what do you teach?’

Now, what I teach is Classics, which to most people means stuff like The Scarlet Letter, so I usually don’t say “Classics” to people when they ask me what I teach. But I also have found that if I say “Latin and Greek,” that will be the end of the conversation. This can be useful, of course. Go ahead and try it on a plane sometime if your seatmate happens to be the chatty kind. Some folks will muster a brave “Huh, that must be interesting” or “My grandpa once did that” but in short order you will be able to return to your book or your iPhone in blessed peace. But today I wasn’t looking to shut down the conversation, or at least not yet, so I mentioned that I had been teaching Mythology just that morning.

“Mythology? Whoa. Like the gods?”

Yes, the gods, I replied, though it was the beginning of the term, so I was still on Creation myths. The kids were by this time well on their way to having the stream dammed. They had tossed in lots of little pebbles and were proceeding like little Sisyphuses (Sisyphi?) to roll bigger stones over to the bank.

“So do you talk about the flood story?” she asked. I do, indeed, I answered, and she wanted to know what I thought about it. And I guess at that point I probably switched into lecture mode, recounting the details of the Greco-Roman flood myths of Deucalion and Pyrrha, and the Babylonians, and the Chinese, and probably was rounding onto Noah  when she interrupted me.

“Do you want to know what I think about the flood?”

That is not a question I often get asked, and so I told her I was all ears. This was clearly a topic she was eager to discuss.

“Well, you know how God punished the world for its sinfulness by flooding it? Everything in the world was sinful and wicked. Everybody was really fucking bad, killing each other and raping each other, and being evil in every which way. And it wasn’t just people. It was everything. The animals were killing each other, all the dinosaurs were being evil.  Man, I think even the plants were acting fucked up. And God said, fuck this shit. You fuckers are all gonna get punished for behaving this way.”

I remember the swear-words well. My wife and I not particularly careful with our language at home, but I suppose we hadn’t ever actually ascribed the F-word to God and the dinosaurs before. The kids, though, were busy with their engineering, so I turned back to her and her earthy analysis of worldly conditions.

“Yeah, so God just decided fuck it, fuckers. And he made it rain and rain and rain until every last one of those evil sons of bitches drowned in their own tears wishing they’d never fucked with God.” I’m not sure if she actually mentioned it, but her version of the story—while perhaps saltier in its expression than what’s in Genesis—accorded pretty closely to the Biblical account.

“Well, now we’re all living in this world just fine and all the evil fucks are down there dead and drowned which serves them right. And then, you know what happened next?”

I was thinking that the “what happened next” was going to be the story of the rainbow–or perhaps the fucking rainbow, as she might have put it–but that wasn’t where she was going.

“Yeah, in the nineteenth century, the Rockefellers and rich assholes like that decided that they would drill for oil. And so they built these goddam big-ass drills and they start drilling down into the earth. And they’re bringing up oil out of the ground and it’s making them rich. Well, you know what oil is, don’t you?” She paused and we glanced over at the kids, who were getting pretty muddy by now.

“Oil is made up out of all the carbon remains of the things that lived on earth a long time ago. So what Rockefeller and them are bringing up with their drills are all those plants and animals and dinosaurs and people that were so fucking evil that God had to kill them by drowning them. And now all that evil that God buried under the mud is now coming up like a bunch of goddam zombies emerging in liquid fucking form. And we’re putting it in our houses and our cars and in planes and just all over the place.”

My eyes were pretty wide now. I did not look over at the kids.

“Yes, we are taking the all stuff God hates so much that he had to kill it in the worst and most final fucking way he could think of, and we’re extracting it and putting it everywhere we can think of. And you know what, it’s coming back to haunt us. You can’t pump all that shit up out of the ground and not expect it to make everything it touches just as evil.” She gestured toward the cars in the parking lot. “Those things.” She pointed to the large HVAC unit on the top of Gailor Hall. “That fucking thing.” She glanced up at a passing plane. “That too. Do you know what they all are? They’re supposed to make the world a more convenient place, a more comfortable place, but really they’re just delivery systems for primordial fucking evil. All those things are destroying the world, and eventually they will destroy every fucking last one of us.”

By this time, the kids had finished playing in the stream. They were covered in mud, and were looking for something else to entertain them. She and I continued to talk in a lighter vein for the remainder of the afternoon, about what I can’t entirely recall, though I do recollect her telling me at length about an acid trip she’d once had in Oregon. I have to say, however, I have not heard since that unseasonably warm winter day a more convincing case for the human causation of global warming and climate change. My scientist friends tell me that our underconsidered overdependence on fossil fuels is wreaking havoc with the planet. Or, as I once heard a prophet put it, You can’t pump all that shit up out of the ground and not expect it to make everything it touches just as evil.

Read at IONA Art Sanctuary, September 19, 2017

Posted in Animals, Bible, Classics, Family, Mythology, Sewanee, Time | 1 Comment

Ubi, Ubi Tu, Scooby Doo?

Okay, so evidently I have time enough on my hands not just to watch but to take notes on an episode from What’s New, Scooby-Doo? called “Pompeii and Circumstance,” which aired in February 2003. Suffer along with me, won’t you?


The opening shot shows tourists in front of the famous Octopus and Lobster mosaic from the House of the Faun. This particular mosaic is not still in situ, but has been removed to the Naples Museum, nor was it on the wall but on the floor. Perhaps we should see this inversion as an early indication of the upside-down nature of the events about the transpire? And the struggle of the sea-creatures foreshadows the battle of wills to unfold between the gang and the forces of evil corruption?

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 10.04.41 PM


It’s notable how often the culprits in Scooby Doo episodes are connected with real estate development, though the trope hardly originated with Saturday morning cartoon shows. There’s Alec Baldwin’s Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), for instance, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman (1978) and of course, Lionel Barrymore’s Mister Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). No doubt you can think of about a million more examples, and there’s an even an article on the topic entitled “The Real Estate Developer as Villain: Notes on a Stigmatized Profession.” All of this makes so much sense in the Age of Trump, by the way. Scooby, why didn’t we listen to you?

The bad guy, Udo, is voiced, by the way, by Mark Hamill, no less! He is actually one of the great cartoon villain voice actors.



Ovid’s Daphne famously took to flight when pursued by Apollo and eventually turned into a tree. Scooby’s Daphne was far more passive, or at least she was in the 1960s cartoons. By the time of the 2002 live-action version of Scooby Doo, though, the character of Daphne had been rethought. As played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, she was a martial arts expert who at one point says, “I am so over this damsel in distress nonsense.” In Pompeii and Circumstance, Daphne is likewise more liberated. When Freddy stays behind to fend off the Gladiator, the others as instructed take cover. Daphne, however, finds a big golf cart and bears down on the ghoul with all the fury of Tullia trying to run over poor old King Servius. When they later realize that they’ll need faster vehicles if they want to catch the gladiator, they rent a Maserati. Alas, Freddy can’t drive a stick, so ends up Daphne driving, wearing a headscarf with sunglasses while she does it and looking very Dolce Vita.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 10.13.19 PM


In the end, the culprits are caught. “And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling bambinos,” intones Udo as he’s led away by the authorities. Yes, and don’t forget the dog. Or, as it is written in Pompeii, Cave canem.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Introduction to the revised edition of “Latin and Greek As Used at Sewanee”

From a Sewanee Features piece last year, some of you will know that I am planning on publishing (at some point in the near but as yet undetermined future) a revised edition of the little pamphlet, Latin and Greek as Used at Sewanee by Forrest Dillon from 1972. When I reached out to him, Forrest was good enough to write the following preface for the new edition–it’s too good to keep to myself until the book is done, so here it is. –CMcD

It was a pleasant surprise last year when I received an email from Classical Languages Professor Chris McDonough, letting me know that he and some of his students were about to prepare a revised edition of “Latin and Greek As Used at Sewanee”.

Professor McDonough referred me to his Sewanee Features article, “Veni, Vidi, Scripsi”, in which he explains the impetus for the project, and summarizes some examples of Latin and Greek texts that can be found around the campus. He asked me to write an introduction to the new edition, and suggested I include some of the background story of the original pamphlet.

Going back 46 years into my memory bank would be challenging! But I was intrigued that there seems to be an interest in the Sewanee community for a recondite subject, and the more I communicated with Chris, the more interested I became.

“Latin and Greek As Used at Sewanee” was originally a term paper for Professor Bayly Turlington’s “Latin 412 – Linguistics” class, and was finished on April 29, 1970.

I found this paper in my files, entitled “Some Latin at Sewanee”. It is hand-written in black ink, and includes Dr. Turlington’s comments in red ink. I’ve sent it to Chris McDonough for the archives.

(I should mention here that Bayly Turlington (Dr. T, to me and my classmates), his wife Anne, son Fielding, and daughter Bowman became a kind of second family to me in my four years on the Mountain. I was from New Jersey, and usually couldn’t travel home for vacations; I often enjoyed kind hospitality at the Turlingtons’. I maintained contact with Bayly and his family for several years after graduating, until his untimely death in 1977. It was quite poignant for me to see, in Chris’ Sewanee Features article, the photo of Bayly’s memorial plaque in All Saints Chapel, with a very appropriate Greek inscription.)

Dr. T had suggested, shortly before I graduated in June of 1970, that I expand the term paper into a pamphlet for publication by Sewanee, and that I include whatever Greek writing I could find on campus. The result was eventually produced by the Office of Information Services in 1972.

I’m not sure when, in the period between graduation in 1970 and publication in 1972, I converted the term paper into the pamphlet.

In those years the war in Viet Nam was winding down, but our military was still heavily involved. My draft number was 11, and I had no chance of deferment; so in August of 1970 I reported for duty at the Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, and spent the next two years on two different destroyers, the second of which spent time in the Tonkin Gulf, on the gun line. (My first ship, the USS Barry, is now a museum in Washington DC. I was an Intelligence Officer, and the Navy in its infinite wisdom put me, a Latin major, whose only bad grade at Sewanee was in Physics 103, in charge of all the electronics on the ship.)

I must have worked on the paper in the summer of 1970 and somehow in off-hours in the Navy. I do remember going over proofs which reached me in the South China Sea, and being aware of the contrast between the subject…ancient texts in leafy, tranquil Sewanee….and my immediate surroundings.

In any case, somehow before graduating I must have collected whatever Greek inscriptions I could find. The order of items in the paper was re-arranged, and some of the more abstruse grammatical notes were cut. On the “Acknowledgments” page in the pamphlet are listed the many people who helped, and no doubt Dr. T. was an essential editor.

I’ve learned from Chris the very good news that the classics department at Sewanee is thriving. It’s also gratifying that my little pamphlet will be updated, including the additions since 1970 of Latin and Greek items, and most importantly the correction of a serious lacuna: the Sewanee diploma! Herewith my apologies, long overdue, for this lack.

Many thanks and best wishes to Professor Chris McDonough and his students for undertaking this project. 

Forrest Dillon
September 2016
Brunswick, Maine

Posted in Classics, Education, Nautical, Sewanee, Tennessee, Time | 1 Comment

Electra and Orestes on a White-Ground Lekythos?

I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for the first time yesterday, and kicked myself for waiting so long to go. What a marvelous collection of art in general and antiquities in particular. The sarcophagi alone are worth the visit. There’s a fine collection of vases, most in very good condition. One struck me in particular, the white-ground lekythos pictured below.

There are better pictures on-line at the Walters website, and on the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum section of the Beazley archive at Oxford.

According to the placard beneath the vase (and reproduced online), nobody in particular in depicted on the lekythos:

The women of the family were responsible for tending the graves of the dead and are frequently depicted on delicate “lekythoi,” or oil-containers, such as this one, carrying out this activity. A mourning woman bends over a tomb, as a youth approaches her unseen. He represents the deceased, whom the Greeks believed lingered near the tomb after death.

Many “lekythoi” intended for funerary use were decorated in the delicate white-ground technique, which used colorful pigments lightly painted on a white background. The pigments flake off easily, often leaving only the preliminary drawing, as on the woman’s dress here.

With all due respect to the Walters staff, though, I wonder if this is right. Might not the mourning woman and unseen youth be Electra and Orestes?

In the opening scene of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the middle play of the Oresteia trilogy first performed in 458 B.C., Orestes and his friend Pylades arrivein Argos to the tomb of Agamemnon, on which he leaves a lock of hair as an offering. They then notice a group of women approaching. As Aeschylus has Orestes say here (in Johnston’s online translation),

     What’s this I see?
What’s this crowd of women coming here,
all wearing black in public? What does it mean?
What new turn of fate? Has some fresh sorrow
struck the house? Or am I right to think
they bring libations here to honour you,
my father, to appease the dead below?
That must be it. I see my sister there,
Electra. That’s her approaching with them.
She’s grieving—in great pain—that’s obvious.
O Zeus, let me avenge my father’s death.
Support me as my ally in this fight.
Pylades, let’s stand over there and hide,
so I can find out what’s taking place,
what brings these suppliant women here.

The chorus of women who have come with Orestes’ sister to the tomb, the libation bearers for whom the play is named, sing a dirge in which Electra joins. She then notices the lock of hair and her brother’s foot-print, both of which she instantly recognizes. She traces the tracks back to her brother’s hiding place, and their reunion sets in motion the revenge plot that makes up the substance of the play.

The vase does not depict the libation-bearing women, nor is there any trace of the stalwart Pylades–this may be enough to militate against the identification I am suggesting. On the other hand, the heart of the Aeschylean scene lies in the intimate moment of recognition between the long-separated siblings, not an instant but a gradual identification.

You’ve come to see
the person you’ve been praying for all this time.

Then you know the man I was calling for?

I know your sympathies are with Orestes.

Yes, but how have my prayers been answered now?

I’m here. You need look no more for friends.
I’m the dearest one you have.

No, stranger.
You’re weaving a net, a trick to trap me.

If so, I plot against myself as well.

You just want to laugh at my distress.

If I laugh at you, I’m laughing at myself.

Orestes . . . is it truly you? Can I
call you Orestes?

Yes, you can.
You’re looking at Orestes in the flesh.
Why take so long to recognize the truth?

The composition on the vase perhaps imitates this same “slow dawning.” As my photos show, both figures are not entirely visible at once. Just as we cannot see both of them together, the figures themselves presumably are not meant to see one another fully. The scene unfolds not all at once but slowly, bit-by-bit, for both the figures in the scene and the viewer.

Perhaps it is special pleading, but I think the experience of looking at the vase suggests a gradual coming together of the mourning woman and the unseen youth, rather than a permanent estrangement that the Walters placard implies in indicating that he is a soul lingering near the tomb.

Of course, I don’t know much about the rest of the Thanatos Painter’s oeuvre. But there are indeed other vases that have been identified as the meeting of Electra and Orestes at Agamemnon’s tomb which might serve as comparanda (like the one below from the Getty museum).


Posted in Classics, Mythology | 4 Comments

Open Letter to Sen. Alexander about Betsy DeVos

Dear Senator Alexander,

As a former School Board member in Franklin County and professor of Classics at the University of the South, I am writing this afternoon to ask you to vote against Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

I realize this request comes at a time when you and your staff are inundated with constituent phone calls against Mrs. DeVos–earlier today, I tried to call your offices in Chattanooga and Nashville and was unable to get through. Those reaching you have already noted her lack of genuine experience and information about public education, her devotion to the failed concept of for-profit schools, her dubious connections to homophobic “conversion therapy” groups, the very obvious pay-for-play nature of her family’s campaign contributions to the Republican party, et cetera, so I will pass these things over.

Let me instead focus on one thing you and I both know to be true about primary- and secondary-school public education in Tennessee.

Schools in Tennessee are woefully underfunded. Our state does not have an income tax, which means the system of funding for schools is convoluted and byzantine. Most of the money comes from the state through the Basic Education Plan (BEP) which, by design, is never sufficient, so that the remaining funds have to be be supplied locally to show they have “skin in the game.” In wealthy communities like your own in Nashville, this makes sense. But I spent a good deal of my time in term (2010-14) in Franklin County fighting with our county commissioners for a moderate property tax increase; understandably, the commissioners are loath to raise taxes even a little bit when they know there are candidates willing to run against them on a no-tax promise. Consequently, all most commissioners ever want to talk about is cuts, and if the BEP didn’t mandate raises from time to time, our teachers’ salaries would be frozen or slashed every single year. This is the system we have, for good or ill, as you well know. What Mrs. DeVos represents, with her out-of-touch devotion to so-called “school choice,” would be a further drain on funding for education. 

Senator Alexander, you and I both know that the $2000 vouchers the President is supporting for those under the federal poverty line will not go very far in alleviating the problem of underfunded schools. We can predict that, if Mrs. DeVos is confirmed, many for-profit schools in poorer areas will pop up for a while and then fail, while those who stay in traditional schools will have to make do with even deeper budget cuts. Students in Tennessee, who have been subjected to far too many educational experiments under both the Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind initiatives, can hardly afford any more trial-and-error management of our state’s schools. Siphoning off funds for charters schools is not the answer, and will in fact deepen the problem.

And how do I know this won’t work? Because that is what the teachers are saying. You know, the ones on the front lines, the ones who have dedicated themselves to educating young people across our state. The ones, by the way, who have protesting outside your office now all month. Every so often, when I was in doubt about matters of policy, I would go sit in the teachers’ lunch room at Sewanee Elementary to get their views. Every time I did so, I learned a lot. I urge you to get out of the Capitol and do the same.

As I always used to say when I was on the school board, public education is not about my kids or your kids, or anybody in particular’s kids. Public education is about an educated public. If you happen to be in the hospital and a nurse has to give you a shot, you hope that he or she knows the difference between .5 and .05–at that moment, you hope somebody gave that person a good education. Multiply that same hope by every transaction you have on a daily basis. This is what public education is about ultimately: knowing that we can trust one another’s level of knowledge so we can go about building our society and living our lives. It’s a messy business, educating the public, and it doesn’t respond well to libertarian ideas of the free market, but at the end of the day, there is no greater investment we can make, both for our families and for our state.

Yours sincerely,
Professor Christopher M. McDonough
Department of Classical Languages
University of the South
735 University Avenue
Sewanee, TN 37383

Posted in Education, Tennessee, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sewanee: Two Bird’s-eye Views




My friend Jerry Smith recently posted the second photo on Facebook–I’m not entirely sure who took it, but perhaps he will let me know.

The sepia print of Sewanee’s campus from 1910 was made by Arthur J. Elder–this is a photo I took of the framed copy in the University Archives, the only known colored print. Elder is a curious character.  Born in 1874 in London, he moved to the US in 1905 and  was hired by the New York publisher, W.T. Littig & Co., to create portraits of American university campuses from the air (a good one of the University of Missouri, with further information, can be seen here; another of the University of Kentucky is here).

How did Elder, or any of the other artists employed by W.T. Littig, get their panoramic views?  This is hard to say. According to the University Icons website, “Lacking good records, today there is debate whether Rummell [another Littig illustrator] would take to the sky in a hot air balloon or, more remarkably, would accurately render the scene as he imagined it … without ever leaving the ground.”  Other sources I’ve looked at indicate the same uncertainty.

In any event, you can see some of the same buildings in Elder’s print as are in Smith’s aerial photo.  St. Luke’s and Breslin Tower both look more or less the same, as does Walsh-Ellet, although the walkway joining it to Breslin has not yet been built.  All Saints’ had been built in 1905, although it was nowhere near as grand as it’s shown here; Elder has filled in the top storey by looking at architectural plans.  Shapard Tower has yet to be constructed as well.  It is interesting to see Thompson Union across from the Chapel; this building would burn in the 1940s. St. Augustine’s Ave can be made out behind what is now the bookstore. Off far to the far right would be the home that Ely Green writes about as that of his father’s family.


Posted in Sewanee, Trees & Flowers | Leave a comment

To Hear About a Martyr and a Hero

I had been prepared yesterday to talk about kings and prophets, but instead got to hear about a martyr and a hero.


Friday was the day before Fall Break here in Sewanee, and my last class of the week was the introductory Humanities class. We had been reading 1 & 2 Samuel, a fascinating set of texts about rulers at any time but especially during the tumultous month before the Trump-Clinton presidential election. The class had had lively discussions about Saul and David, and how we should be reading the sources about controversial leaders; we thought about the difficulties in the story of Bathsheba and Nathan’s upbraiding of David; we thought about Psalm 51, listened to Gregorio Allegri’s haunting Miserere, as well as Bill Clinton’s reworking of the psalm in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast in 1998; for some of us, Donald Trump’s apology was in the background of the conversation, too. In addition, we had also forced ourselves to look at the unresolved issues of justice and vengeance in the story of Tamar’s rape, and read a contemporary essay on it. On Wednesday, my colleague Eric Thurman had given a brilliant lecture on Amos and the prophetic tradition. “Prophets speak, but they also act in symbolic ways, deliberately to make us uncomfortable,” he noted, pointing to Jeremiah carrying an ox-yoke. He then asked us to think about Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem. “Is Colin Kaepernick among the prophets?” he asked, to much squirming.

It might make sense , I thought, to go over to All Saints’ Chapel to look at the stained glass windows in which David’s story is told and the prophets are portrayed. I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the Bible in the church, and see how different that might be from discussions around a seminar table. Two older gentleman and a young man came though the chapel just as I was beginning to point out the program of the windows to the students, how Old Testament stories are found in the Southern clerestory, and illustrations of Church history are in the North. I had not gotten very far when Tom Macfie, the University chaplain and and old friend appeared with the three guys who’d come in earlier. “Chris, can you come here?” he asked. “Bring your students.” Uh oh, I thought, I’m in trouble for not letting him know we were going to be in here.

We were under one of the Northern windows which depicts significant scenes in the history of the Episcopal church. In one medallion, a bishop from the Confederate states is holding a Rebel flag and shaking hands with a bishop under an American flag; it’s labelled Reconciliation. Corresponding to it is an image of Civil Rights marchers, Tom pointed out to us. You see three people with linked arms on what I take to be the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The young woman on the right, an African-American teenager, is Ruby Sales. Beside her, Tom continued, is a young white man. Underneath you see the words We Shall Overcome, and the man’s name, Jonathan Daniels, 1965. 

Jonathan Myrick Daniels (March 20, 1939 – August 20, 1965) was an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist. In 1965 he was assassinated by a shotgun-wielding construction worker, Tom Coleman, who was a special county deputy, in Hayneville, Alabama while in the act of shielding 17-year-old Ruby Sales. He saved the life of the young black civil rights activist. They both were working in the Civil Rights Movement in Lowndes County to integrate public places and register black voters after passage of the Voting Rights Act that summer. Daniels’ death generated further support for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1991 Daniels was designated as a martyr in the Episcopal church, and is recognized annually in its calendar

“This man is Richard Morrisroe,” Tom told us, putting his hand on one of the older men’s shoulders. “He was there as well.” In a calm voice, Richard began to tell us his story. That day in 1965, Jonathan and Richard (at that time a Roman Catholic priest) had been in the Lowndes County jail with several African-American civil rights protesters. Unexpectedly released in the middle of the hot day, four of them–Jonathan, Richard, Ruby, and another young back woman named  went across the street to get a Coke, and were greeted by a man with shotgun in the doorway whose name was Tom Coleman, a county deputy. What happened next is quite awful, and rather then recount poorly Richards story, let me quote Ruby Sales herself from an interview in 2005:

And it is a face that we have never seen before. And we have gone to that little store over and over. And of course, we’ve just gotten out of jail, and even if we hadn’t been in jail we had no weapons. And he said something like, “Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out,” and this man moved with rapid fire.

Next thing I knew I was being pulled back and tripped and fell. I didn’t know that Jonathan was shot. I just knew the shotgun blast had happened. It happened so fast I can’t describe to you, — I didn’t associate the body flying up in the air to Jonathan. I mean, my mind, it was happening so fast that I couldn’t even process it.

When I began to process it and come back to some consciousness, — I’m on the ground and I’m saying “This is dead. This is what it feels like to be dead.” I think in my head that I’m dead. But I realize that I’m not dead because the other shotgun blast happens. I hear Father Morrisroe moaning for water, “Water, water, water.”

Morrisroe was running with Joyce Bailey in his hands, — he’s holding her hand and he’s not letting it go for nothing. And he’s running with her, and he did not let go of her hands until he was shot in the back, and she kept running and he fell.

She runs around, — you know how in the south, — always there were these cars and so she ran behind one of these cars. This is the jail, she runs over, she runs out and then she circles around and goes around on the side of the jail very close to where I had fallen. And to her credit she did not leave until she could determine who was alive and who was dead. So she started calling my name, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby.”

And I don’t know how, but I managed to crawl on my knees. Because you have to understand that this man’s rage was not depleted. Tom Coleman literally walks over to [Morrisroe], he is over Morrisroe’s body, standing guard over this body, because [Morrisroe] is calling for water and he’ll be damned if he’s gonna let anybody give him water. Jimmy Rogers comes over and tries to give Father Morrisroe water, and the man threatens to blow his brains out. So he is not finished. He is on a rampage.

Joyce and I get up, I crawl over to her and we run across the street to the other group. And by now you can imagine there is bedlam. I mean people are frightened, because we don’t know if this is a klan conspiracy and people are all in the bushes. We just don’t know what is going to happen.

But what we do know is that Father Morrisroe is still calling for water. So, I go back over, and the crazy thing about it is that this man didn’t even realize that I was a person that he tried to kill. I sometimes wonder, — [I was] really crazy to go back over there, but I did that.

[Coleman] was threatening to kill everybody.

Daniels was killed instantly, and Morrisroe seemed very close to death. Indeed, a hearse came to pick up Daniels’ body, and Morrisroe was put on top of him and transported to the hospital, where he was in fact given his last rites. After much pleading, a doctor agreed to operate on Richard and saved his life after an 11-hour operation. After two years of physical therapy, Richard recounted, he learned to walk again, and to deal with what he came to realize was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Probably you can guess that Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, and died peacefully at home in 1997.


The other older man, as I come to learn, is an Episcopal priest named Francis X. Walter, himself a figure from the Civil Rights movement, and he has opinions about some of the Confederate fetishism that Sewanee has at times engaged in. The conversation strays to stories of the Mace, of Leonidas Polk, and other things.All this while, the younger man who had come in with Richard sits in quiet attention. He is Richard’s grandson, a student at the University of Buffalo, the same age as my Humanities students, who have been listening intently to this story of martyrdom and heroism–they are aware what a remarkable moment this is.

The hour is almost up, and as we gather our things to leave, Francis encourages us to look at a book  by Charles Eagles called Outside Agitator (University of North Carolina, 1993), about Jon Daniels as well as Tom Coleman. I look it up later, and in fact find Francis’ own review of the book, itself well worth reading. As he writes,

One of the knots that Eagles entices the reader to untangle is: what should be the role of prudence when one steps out in faith to realize one’s self and the best in one’s culture? Was Jon heedless, did he not know his behavior could get him killed? Eagles has many examples of Jon acting and speaking with blacks and whites as if racism did not exist, as if a reign of peace and justice actually existed in Selma and Lowndes County in 1965. If he knew the danger (and he did) what was his obligation to himself, God, and his Church to exercise caution? Just how much Kingdom should a person in extreme circumstances live in order to offer his due to God and humanity? The reader is urged to decide this in the case of Jon Daniels. It is to be earnestly hoped the reader will consider his or her own case. It is good to be prepared should such a time of decision come to us.

Jon led an examined life. Tom led an unexamined life. Jon wanted to explore agape. Tom wanted to keep everything the same, to protect the little he had. Tom protected a bunch of lies to keep an easy life. Jon explored the truth and was racked with sorrow that it hurt people for him to do so. Jon had vision. Tom could not visualize Lowndes County without an order such as his father provided. He got up from his courthouse domino game and killed to keep the only order he could imagine. Tom had a sense of place, local, un-nuanced. He loved the land of Lowndes County. Jon lived a lot of his life in the Spirit, and tried to love the oikoumene—the whole inhabited earth.

What can I say? We never did get to talk about Amos on Friday, but I suppose we will long remember this accidental meeting that illustrated more than any class discussion could the prophet’s most famous lines, But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.


Richard Morrisroe, Francis Walter, Richard’ grandson, and Tom Macfie




Prayer on the Feast Day (August 14th) of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr.

O God of justice and compassion, who dost put down the proud And the mighty from their place, and dost lift up the poor and afflicted: We give thee thanks for thy faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.

Image to the right, from AL.com. The Rev. Francis Walter, a retired Episcopal priest in Alabama, carries the icon of Jonathan Daniels during the 2010 pilgrimage. Walter, who helped raise their bond money, had visited Daniels and the others jailed in Hayneville in the week before Daniels’ murder. After Daniels’s death, Father Walter was sent by the Selma Interreligious Project to continue a ministry of presence in Selma and the surrounding counties. (Courtesy of Dave Drachlis)

Postscript. It would be remiss me of me not to link to Annie Blanks’ very fine story on Her Campus about Ruby Sales’ visit to Sewanee in 2014. As her piece concludes, “Behold how good it was when Jonathan Daniels made the ultimate sacrifice so that Ruby Sales could live, fighting for a cause hoping that one day brothers and sisters of all colors could truly dwell together in unity.”

Posted in Bible, Education, Music, Poetry, Race, Saints, Sewanee, Statues & Monuments, The South | Leave a comment