Juniata Celebrates Activism of Students Who Worked for Civil Rights in 1965
(Posted March 1, 2005)
HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Nearly 600 neatly dressed marchers, looking for all the world as though they were strolling to a church social, approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. on March 7, 1965 and began a 50-mile march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Just six blocks after setting out, the marchers were assaulted with tear gas as mounted horsemen charged into the crowd wielding clubs, beating down more than 50 marchers.
After the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident, both of the groups involved in the march, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sent requests to college campuses across the country to send students to "go South" and work for equal rights.
Juniata College will celebrate its own role in these civil rights events by hosting a reunion of students and faculty from the college who left campus in 1965 to offer service in voter registration and other efforts. The event is called "Living Testimony: Civil Rights Reunion and Renewal."
The reunion will feature a Sunday, March 20 luncheon at 1 p.m. for reunion participants. At 5 p.m., there will be a reception and dinner in the Ellis College Center ballroom. Later that evening, there will be panel discussion with all the returning alumni and faculty who "went South" at 7:30 p.m. in Oller Hall in Rosenberger Auditorium on the Juniata campus.
The returning group includes Harriet Richardson Michel, president of the National Minority Supplier Development Council who lives in New York City; former Juniata poet-in-residence Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who is retired in Vermont; Pamela Clemson Macomber, a financial services professional living in Irving, Texas; Chuck Lytle, a chemist living in Portland, Oregon; Don Ardolino, an insurance executive from St. Louis, Mo.; John Fike, a fundraising professional from Detroit, Mich.; Janet Kauffman, professor of English at Eastern Michigan University; and former faculty member Elmer Maas, an activist affiliated with the Ploughshares group.
Chuck Lytle, who was a freshman in 1965, will also donate his collection of memorabilia from his trip to the College, which will be on special exhibit in Juniata's Beeghly Library.
He will give a talk on his collection Sunday at 3 p.m. at the library. On March 21, students will present a poster session, as well as a read-in and a student panel, followed by a 7:30 p.m. reading in the auditorium. Readings will be from a screenplay about the trip written by Juniata alumna Sylvia Kurtz, a social studies teacher at Huntingdon Area High School. Galway Kinnell, one of the faculty to make the trip to Selma, will read one of his poems. He received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1978.
"As we were swept up in these events we all realized that what we were doing was way bigger than us," Lytle says. "I don't think any of us were thinking that we were taking part in an important moment in history. We were down there because it was the right thing to do."
The group that traveled to Selma was galvanized by images of the incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Days after the incident, a group of Juniata students met in a dorm room to discuss the call for volunteers put out the Selma-based civil rights groups. The next day, an official group was formed led by four students and Kinnell. Almost 100 students and faculty came to the meeting.
By March 12, the trip to Selma involved 15 students, three faculty and several local ministers. More than 100 students and faculty gathered at the College and marched to the steps of the Huntingdon County courthouse and sang "We Shall Overcome." Those bound for Selma began their southern journey in five cars shortly after noon.
The group arrived in Selma March 14 and were diverted by organizers to the state capitol, Montgomery. The next morning, March 15, the Juniata contingent joined another protest at Alabama State and was blocked by campus police. Stymied, the group later started a march to the state capitol to present then-Gov. George Wallace with civil rights petitions. They were stopped almost immediately and held a sit-down protest.
By March 16, another march to the state capitol began, with more than 1,000 participants led by SNCC leader James Forman. Policemen from the Montgomery Police Department, many on horseback, charged the crowd flailing with clubs, cattle prods and whips. Three Juniata activists were injured: Kinnell, the late Don Hope, a professor of English and Gerald Witt, minister with the local Evangelical Brethren Church.
Photos from these incidents were splashed across the major media of the day, Life magazine (in the March 26, 1965 issue), the New York Times and the Associated Press. Television broadcasts also caught Juniata students on camera, including Pam Clemson, who was later arrested and placed in solitary confinement in a Montgomery jail. The next day, Martin Luther King led 2,000 marchers to the Montgomery County courthouse, where he attended a meeting with city officials. The Juniata group, except for Clemson who stayed in Alabama with her brothers (who had traveled down with a Penn State contingent), returned on the 18th.
The late Calvert Ellis, president of Juniata at the time, felt so strongly that student lives might be in danger that he made it clear that the college did not support any trip. In fact he issued an announcement saying "any student who leaves the campus for Alabama who is under 21 years of age and does not have on file (the) proper permission from a parent is automatically disassociated from the college and must apply for re-admission." Many students, including some of the student leaders, withdrew from the trip.
Assistant provost James Tuten, who is organizing the reunion, sees the two-day event as a great experiential learning opportunity for current students. The reunion ties in with the college's civil rights-themed academic year program which started with the summer reading program assignment, "Walking With the Wind," by Rep. John Lewis, the activist who led the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, continued with a guest lecture by Lewis Oct. 3, and will culminate with a commencement address in May delivered by Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
Contact Gabe Welsch at email@example.com or (814) 641-3131 for more information.