Fredonia students march in front of Old Main on Temple Street 50 years ago on their way to Barker Commons to hear speakers call for Civil Rights legislation following the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of marchers in Selma, Ala.
A small but resolute group of students in 1965 didn’t let the 950 miles that separate Fredonia from Selma, Ala., prevent them from enlisting the campus — and surrounding community, for that matter — in the escalating push for civil rights for black Americans a half-century ago.
These five Fredonians — all female — initiated their own grassroots campaign days after the nation was shocked by the beatings, dealt by Alabama state troopers, of unarmed marchers on their way to the state capital to advocate for voting rights. Newspaper front pages and evening newscasts documented the event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” through riveting images.
“When we actually saw what was going on in Selma, we were so appalled that we met to pray and decided we just had to do something more,” recalled Rose Shufelt-Scott. The centerpiece of “something more” formulated by Linda Bennett, Joeritta Jones, Nettie Atkins, Sandra Gabbriellini and Miss Shufelt was a peaceful protest march to downtown Fredonia. Students were also urged to write letters to President Lyndon Johnson, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and federal lawmakers.
The nationwide release earlier this year of “Selma,” a historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, spurred Mrs. Shufelt-Scott to forward a booklet containing copies of letters and poster information along with copies of newspaper articles to Fredonia Alumni Affairs Director Patty Feraldi.
“So many life-changing events took place in our nation during the 1960s while I was at Fredonia,” said Shufelt-Scott, pointing to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the rise of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Selma marches, she recalled, were widely discussed across the campus.
In their open letter to fellow students, the five students wrote that a 5-cent stamp “is a very small price to pay in comparison to the bodies being injured and beaten in Alabama for a peaceful protest for the same rights we enjoy and so laxly appreciate.” Shufelt-Scott, a junior Education major, believed a march from Gregory Hall to Barker Commons would bring further attention to the injustices being committed against blacks in the South.
The five were a racially diverse group, with two whites, two African Americans and one first-generation Italian/Puerto Rican, who resided in Hillman House. Fredonia provided Shufelt, who grew up in Ripley, N.Y., with an introduction to students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“We all got along and became close friends right from the start. There didn’t appear to be any ‘racial’ issues on campus and I never heard any of my friends complain in that regard,” she said.
Their protest call was heeded by more than 300 students, faculty and administrators on a chilly Sunday afternoon, March 15. Coordinated with college administrators and village officials, the march adhered to Dr. King’s philosophy of passive resistance and non-violent protest. Students marched silently, in pairs.
Beneath the headline, “Students United to Protest Discrimination,” the Evening Observer reported that the march itself was “surprisingly uneventful” and not marred by signs or catcalls.
Once in the village square, marchers listened to prayers offered by local clergy and speeches from faculty.
“We are here to show that our campus is not in intellectual rigor mortis, but rather, committed to equal rights for Negros. We are deeply involved in what is now happening in Selma, Alabama,” Dr. Daniel Roselle, a history professor, was quoted in a report filed by the Dunkirk bureau of Buffalo’s Courier-Express newspaper.
“In my 15 years of teaching at this college, I have never been prouder of our students than I am this day,” he remarked with pride.
Dr. Roselle didn’t confine his message to students, but summoned dozens of townspeople observing the gathering to join the movement, too. He urged everyone to write letters to lawmakers demanding that they pass legislation to prevent blacks from being denied the right to vote in the South.
Other speakers included Physics Professor Willard Gaeddert, as well as Michael Stauffer, president of Student Government Association, who read a telegram sent to President Johnson that urged swift and decisive action by the federal government to prosecute those responsible for the Selma brutality.
A singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “We Shall Overcome” concluded the program.
“Looking back now, I am so very proud of the faculty and administration who responded with such respect and support for our efforts,” Shufelt-Scott said. “I don’t recall any opposition; it seemed we were all on the same page and everything went forward smoothly.”
An editorial in The Leader recounted President Johnson’s assessment of Selma as “an American tragedy” and presented its own observation, calling what happened in Fredonia “one of the proudest moments” in Fredonia’s history. “For the first time, members of the college and the community marched together to protest a denial of constitutional rights — of others, not their own.”
Students, faculty and administrators can reflect with pride on this chapter of Fredonia history, Shufelt-Scott added.