Book Review: Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights

Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace

Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace (published by Calkins Creek) tells the true, meticulously researched story of a white Episcopalian seminary student who traveled from New England to Alabama in 1965 to work beside black people fighting for their voting rights. His story, probably best suited for ages 12 and up, offers a fascinating new perspective on the civil rights movement and also provides a timely example of how white people can be effective allies to leaders of color working for change.

Husband-and-wife writing team Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace were inspired to write Blood Brother after seeing Jonathan Daniels’s name popping up all over the place in Keene, New Hampshire, a small college town where they relocated several years ago. “Who was this local hero?” they asked themselves. After researching him a bit, their question became, “Why have we never heard of him? This is a national hero.” 

They set out to tell his story and fill in some of the gaps along the way, and they’ve done a magnificent job. Because Daniels’s story was so little-known outside Keene, they often had to do a fair amount of detective work to piece together their narrative. For instance, they traveled to Alabama and used Daniels’s old photos of previously unidentified black activists to track down people who’d worked with Daniels and interview them. In some cases, this was the first time these civil rights veterans had gotten to tell their stories. 

In another case, the Wallaces used facial forensic analysis to confirm that a photo of a man in a clerical collar at the 1963 March on Washington really was Jonathan. When the previously undiscovered photo first came to light in 2013, some of Daniels’s friends insisted it couldn’t possibly be Jonathan shown in the photo, because he’d never mentioned attending the March to his family or friends in Keene and also because the man in the photo was wearing a clerical collar, something Daniels wasn’t yet authorized to do in 1963. Other people swore the photo definitely showed Jonathan. The Wallaces’ detective work helped solve the mystery once and for all. 

I was initially skeptical of this book when I saw it on the shelf. I feared that focusing on a white person who worked for civil rights would detract from centering on black people’s leadership and sacrifice. Too often, we’ve seen books and Hollywood movies portray the civil rights movement as being driven by noble white heroes, significantly muddying the truth.

The Wallaces definitely don’t fall into that trap in this book. Using Daniels’s story, they offer a valuable perspective on such black leaders as Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr. Their on-the-ground narrative shows very effectively how messy and disorganized the civil rights movement of the Sixties could sometimes be, and how its leaders and workers often disagreed among themselves about philosophy and practices. I think this is an important antidote to the rosy, idealized picture we’re sometimes presented of earlier civil rights movements, helping give this generation of activists a more realistic picture of how messy and confusing activism often is.

 The book also offers a model of how white people can best help black people in their fight for justice. I was particularly moved by a moment in the book when Daniels went to a small town in Alabama to support high-school students organizing a protest of the denial of voting rights to their parents and the atrocious condition of their schools. The students looked to Daniels for advice, and it would have been easy for Daniels, an older, college-educated white man from a fairly privileged background, to play the authority figure. Instead, he told them this was their protest and that he was willing to help them do what they thought best. That kind of trust in black leadership and youth leadership is all too rare, even today. 

That’s not to say that Daniels comes off as perfect or saintly. At times, he took actions that will provide readers with ample food for discussion about whether he did the right thing or not. But no matter what they think of some of his individual actions, I believe readers can’t help coming away from this book with a sense that Jonathan Daniels’s life definitely made a difference.

“See, Jon went beyond civil rights,” Stokely Carmichael once said of Daniels. “He went to man’s inhumanity to man, stripped of color.”

Civil rights leader and current United States Representative John Lewis praised Daniels this way: “I’ve heard of the work of Jonathan Daniels. Nitty gritty, dirty work. It was not flashy. . . but it was work that needed to be done.”

All these years later, there’s plenty of nitty gritty work that still needs doing. This highly readable, absorbing book provides bracing inspiration for that work.