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Among Selma marchers 50 years ago, a contingent from Canisius College

They marched nine miles under the early-spring Alabama sun, a long walk through mostly rural countryside that told the story of America’s agrarian South.

They were jeered and taunted with threatening signs and racial epithets, as they saw for themselves the great divide in our country over civil rights.

And on their way to Selma, Ala., they got their first hint of the belligerence they would face in the Deep South, dealing with a hostile bus driver who objected to their very presence – and even their saying the Rosary – as they fought for every U.S. citizen’s right to vote.

Fifty years ago this weekend, 33 Canisius College students and three faculty members carved out a huge legacy for their school – and themselves – by marching the first nine miles from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., during a nonviolent freedom march seeking civil rights for all Americans.

Half a century later, the history of the college’s role in that march has been preserved, in several ways: through the handwritten notes and other artifacts found in the Canisius College Archives, through the photographs of a Canadian freelance photographer and through the memories of the participants.

“I think we participated in making the history of the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” said the co-leader of the group, then-Canisius College senior Robert E. Yuhnke, now a retired environmental attorney living in Boulder, Colo. “We were not just bystanders. We committed ourselves to going to a potentially violent situation, to speak up for principles that are very American.”

The march began on March 21, 1965, two weeks after the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the five-day, 54-mile trek, which also included civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and Ralph Bunche.

As the New York Times stated that first day, “The marchers, or at least many of them, are on their way to the State Capitol at Montgomery to submit a petition for Negro rights Thursday to Gov. George C. Wallace, a man with little sympathy for their cause.”

+The three dozen Canisius College students, all white, commanded a lot of attention on their one-day walk, largely because they marched with a large banner – “Canisius College/Buffalo, New York/Marches for Freedom” – and at least half a dozen placards, with messages like “Civil Men Are For Civil Rights” and “Canisius College Students March For Justice.”

At the beginning of the walking protest, starting in Selma, the march had just over 3,000 participants. So the Canisius crew accounted for more than 1 percent of the first protesters.

“We all felt very proud that Canisius was there to support us,” Yuhnke said. “The Jesuits did not stand in our way. It would have been so easy for them to say no.”

Bruce J. Dierenfield, a current Canisius history professor who has written about civil rights and created an African-American Experience program there, marveled at the college’s commitment to the bus trip 50 years ago.

“It was an amazing thing for the college to support this student initiative,” he said. “It was an inherently dangerous situation, going into the heart of Klan country. There was no assurance that they would get out alive.”

Carrying their banner and placards and dressed in “coat and tie,” according to the college archives, the Canisius group caught the eye of one Canadian freelance photographer, Lynn Ball, the first photographer for the Canadian Press in Ottawa.

“Coming from up here, in Canada, we heard about the unrest in the South, but you never got the idea of how the white people really felt down there,” he said.

And the angry Southern whites were more belligerent to the Northern protesters than to the blacks living there.

“They were hostile to the ‘agitators’ or ‘beatniks’ from the North,” he recalled. “It was a very eerie feeling.”

Yuhnke, who served 50 years ago as editor of the Canisius newspaper, The Griffin, recalled a few snapshots that showed the hostility and racial tension in Selma and the Deep South:

• The first hint came on the last leg of the roughly 1,000-mile drive from Buffalo to Selma, when a new bus driver revealed his views.

First, he turned the heat up to its maximum level, so the Canisius students were all sweating, Yuhnke remembered. When the students opened the windows, the driver turned off the heat and left them chilled on an approximately 40-degree night.

The Canisius College Archives contain a handwritten note based on a telephone call from one of the faculty members on the trip who referred to the same bus driver:

“Bus driver would not put on heat [or] allow radio and objected to Rosary being said,” the note said in part.

“At one point,” Yuhnke said, “he expressed some hostility to what our agenda was, Northern carpetbaggers or something like that, coming down to tell them what to do. It was clear he was hostile, by his facial expressions and his conduct.”

That same bus driver, once they got to Selma, didn’t drop the group off at its desired location in the black neighborhoods where the protesters were gathering.

•  That’s when the protesters took their first “march,” a pre-dawn walk of maybe a mile, from white neighborhoods near downtown into the much poorer black neighborhoods.

The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. The black neighborhoods had unpaved streets, no street trees, no street lights, no sidewalks and houses that resembled shacks.

“What it did was to demonstrate to me what happens when you do not have the vote,” Yuhnke said. “If you have no vote, no elected official has to listen to you. That walk, through the city blocks, was really eye-opening.”

• The march, on Sunday March 21, also was eye-opening, especially the reaction from white counter-demonstrators.

Once the marchers left the black neighborhood and reached the downtown area, they were met by a “very hostile crowd” of counter-demonstrators, with a line of National Guardsmen, separating the two groups, he remembered.

“They were giving us the finger and shouting epithets at us, including the N-word, and some of the signs were threatening physical violence,” Yuhnke said. “You definitely had the feeling that we were not welcomed.”

•The next night, the Canisius College group slept on and under the pews of a Baptist church, where they were greeted by a group of curious black youths, from about age 6 to 16.

One of those boys, about 10 or 11, had a gash on his forehead. He pointed to a hole in the church’s stained-glass window and explained he had been chased back to the church from the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a state trooper and forced to jump through the window to seek refuge.

“This was a personal experience of the kind of violence we had seen on TV,” Yuhnke said. “This made it seem so very real.”

Yuhnke explained how the Canisius College group got its start.

He had been politically conservative, coming from a working family that was friendly with a lot of Buffalo police officers. He was moved while watching the TV news coverage of the Selma confrontations on “Bloody Sunday.”

“I think part of the shock was seeing so many state troopers using so much violence against people who had no weapons and were not being violent,” he recalled.

The next day, as King issued a plea for the faith community to go to Selma, Yuhnke sat down with Michael Monin, the yearbook editor, and decided to heed that call. They then gained the support of the Rev. Edward Gillen, a Canisius vice president.

How could a white, conservative 21-year-old student from Buffalo be so moved to travel 1,000 miles on a bus to rally for African-Americans’ rights in a potentially violent confrontation?

“I was so outraged by what I had seen on TV that I thought there had to be a statement from the rest of the nation that this was not what America was all about,” Yuhnke said. “It was less important that the people being denied the right to vote were black. It was more important that any American was denied the right to vote.”

According to the Canisius College Archives, more than four times as many students signed up for the march as there were seats on the bus.

Before the group left Buffalo, Yuhnke learned an important lesson about standing up for his convictions. He was an Army ROTC student, and one of the leaders of that organization threatened to throw him out of the cadet corps and subject him to the draft if he went on the march and missed his required participation in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Father Gillen intervened.

“The message I got from Father Gillen was that there were things that were important enough to stand up for,” he said. “It was a matter of integrity.”