Death at the Heart of Life

He had been murdered at Hayneville, Alabama, on Friday, August 20, 1965.

The following Monday, people started arriving at his hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, for his funeral service that would take place the next day. We gathered at the home of his mother on Summer Street, not far from St. James Church where his body lay in an open casket. Those of us who had seen him recently spoke to her about how much he meant to us.

What did he mean to us? He had sought to be an instrument of reconciliation in the civil rights struggle. He had loved in the face of hate. A young man, he had offered his life. It had been taken. How many more lives would have to be sacrificed in the cause of justice?

Jon was in jail in the Deep South on a civil rights charge. Released from jail, he and a few others with him were headed for a nearby store to buy food. A white segregationist bearing a gun loomed up in the street. Jon pushed aside a young African American woman with whom he was walking. He took the fire and died immediately. A black man accompanying him was told, "You see what happened to him? You'd better get out of here now unless you want the same thing to happen to you."

Shortly before his death Jon wrote a few lines that, after he died, helped to explain his commitment to justice and perhaps even his willingness to die for it: "Reality is kaleidoscopic in the black belt. Now you see it, now you don't. Light, dark, white, black -- a way of life blurs. Focus shifts. Black, white, black, white -- a rhythm ripples in the sun, pounds in the steaming light, dances in the blood. Sometimes one's vision changes with it. A crooked man climbs a crooked tree on a crooked hill. Somewhere in mists of the past a tenor sang of valleys lifted up, hills made low. Death at the heart of life, life in the midst of death. The tree of life is indeed a cross."

A few weeks before his death, Jon and I were with Martin Luther King Jr. at a small gathering in Selma, Alabama. King asked Jon and me -- and a dozen or so others -- to speak briefly about our feelings and problems within the civil rights movement. All of us were excited by Harvey Cox's book "The Secular City," but also worried about new conflicts in the civil rights movement, including white America's response to it. Now, at Jon's funeral, I realized how he had brought together the freedom movement and the faith community.

Seated next to me in the Keene burial service was Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later he shared with me some notes he'd made on the back of a printed church bulletin: "Jon was not a religious man. He lived a religious life. Jon did not die for us all. His life was taken from him. Jon lived for us all. Jon did not get his strength from rituals. He got his strength from people. From whence cometh my strength? My strength cometh not from the hills. My strength cometh from men like Jon."

During my visit in Keene, I slept in Jon's old bed that he'd occupied years earlier in his mother's house. Some of his old clothing -- shirts, pants, jackets, belts and ties -- still hung in a closet. I felt privileged to know Jonathan and have never been able to reach a sense of closure about his death. In a beautiful way he combined tenderness and strength, idealism and pragmatism, complexity of commitment and grace.

Thank you, Jonathan, for your life and death.