50th Anniversary of Integration

Moving Forward

Beginning with an August 28 observance of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the University in 2013 commemorated over the course of the academic year both the anniversary of Mercer’s integration and Dr. King’s call for an end to racism in America and the creation of a beloved community.

Under the theme “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Celebrating a Half-Century of Integration at Mercer University,” alumni, students, faculty, staff, trustees and others reflected on the progress made within our University community and nation over the prior 50 years.

A consistent message throughout the year-long commemoration was that the work is not done. Through lectures, programs, classroom discussions, service initiatives and conversations across the University’s campuses, Mercerians redoubled their efforts to make Dr. King’s dream a reality at Mercer and in our communities.

This website captures much of the commemoration year’s activities and resources.

January 14, 1833


Mercer Institute opens in Greene County with 22 students enrolled


President J. B. Gambrell says he is “delighted to tell about several Negro preachers who attended the theological classes while he was president and who were heartily welcomed by the white students.” (Baptist Standard, June 23, 1921)


As part of Mercer’s extension program, members of the University faculty instructed African-American students at Macon’s Central City College in a variety of courses.


Desegregation becomes a hot topic at Mercer, with several seminars held on campus. These conversations occur four years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

May 17, 1954

The Supreme Court issues the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and declaring that with regard to public schools, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

September 10, 1954

In response to a question from the Association of American Law Schools Special Committee on Racial Discrimination, the Executive Committee of Mercer’s Board of Trustees passes a resolution that “in effect means that Negro students will not be admitted to any division of Mercer University until the Georgia Baptist Convention so directs the trustees and administration.”

January 6, 1961

Judge Bootle

U.S. District Judge William Augustus Bootle, a Mercer graduate, trustee and former dean of the Mercer Law School, ordered the University of Georgia to admit Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, thereby ending 160 years of segregation at the institution.

June 3, 1961

President Rufus Harris announces to the Board of Trustees that the School of Law received an application for admission from an African-American. Since the applicant is 54-years-old, Harris tells the Board of Trustees that he would likely be denied by the Law School Admissions Committee since the average age of the law student body is 23.

July 1962

Mercer Cluster

President Rufus Harris announces that Mercer has received “one or two” applications from African-Americans, but none of the applicants were qualified for admission. “We would have not accepted the students if they had been white,” he told The Macon Telegraph. President Harris states that when a “Negro student does qualify for admission, his application will be referred to the board of trustees,” and added that he favored the admission of African-Americans to the University.

October 1962

The Board of Trustees votes to appoint a special committee to study the matter of admission of Black students to the University.

November 2, 1962

The Mercer Law Alumni Association passes a resolution that reads, in part, “Be it resolved, we do register our objection to the integration of the educational facilities of Mercer University, if being the feeling that to so act would be contrary to the best interest of the University and student body.”

April 16, 1963

Martin Luther King Jr. writes “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

April 18, 1963

Mercer Cluster

Under the leadership of Mercer President Rufus Harris, admission to qualified students without regard to race, color of skin, creed or origin was declared official by the University’s Board of Trustees. Sam Jerry Oni of Ghana became the first Black student admitted to the University.

May 3, 1963

In a letter published in The Cluster, Joe Daniel asks fellow students to raise $75 for Sam Oni’s dorm fees “as a gesture of approval and friendship.”

June 12, 1963

Civil rights activist and Mississippi’s NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Wiley Evers is assassinated in Jackson, Miss.

August 28, 1963

Martin Luther King Jr. gives his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The address was given during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

September 15, 1963

A bomb explodes at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls attending Sunday school.

September 1963

Bennie Stephens

Bennie Stephens and Cecil Dewberry of Macon begin classes at Mercer with Sam Oni. The three were the first Black students to enroll at the University.


September 1963

Shortly after he arrives on campus, Sam Oni and his roommate, Donald Baxter, are visited by the pastor of Tattnall Square Baptist Church, who states that he “he didn’t think his congregation was quite ready to accept [Oni].”

September 22, 1963

Sam Oni

Vineville Baptist Church votes by a margin of two to one to allow Sam Oni to join its congregation, which, according to the The Christian Index, makes Oni “the first of his race to join a church affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention since slavery days.”

November 22, 1963

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Summer 1964

Joe Hendricks and William Randall recruit 17 Black high school students to be tutored on Mercer’s campus in remedial reading, English, and math in order to prepare them to integrate into the white high schools and also increase their college entrance exam test scores.

July 2, 1964

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ends discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender and religion.


Cecil Dewberry becomes Mercer’s first Black graduate.

Summer 1966

Integrated Classroom

Mercer is an early participant in the federal Upward Bound program, which emerges from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. The program is designed to prepare lower-income high school students (both Black and white) for college entrance.


May 1967

Bennie Stephens and Sam Oni graduate from the University. Oni vows to never return to Georgia again due to the difficulties he experienced while in Macon, primarily in the religious community.


Ronald Myrick becomes the first Black student to graduate from Mercer’s Southern School of Pharmacy in Atlanta.


Betty Jean Walker is the first female African-American to receive a four-year degree from Mercer.


Andrew Young and Sam Oni visit in the spring of 1968 during a Poor People’s Campaign stop in Marks, Miss. The campaign was organized by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was carried out in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination.


H.W. Ted Matthews graduates from Mercer’s Southern School of Pharmacy and goes on to become the first Black faculty member at the pharmacy school and the first Black dean at the University. Today, in addition to serving as dean of the College of Pharmacy, Dr. Matthews serves as Senior Vice President for Health Sciences and oversees the Mercer Health Sciences Center.

April 1, 1969

Fifty-five Black students start the Black Students Alliance at Mercer. The Alliance was open to any fulltime Mercer student who pledged support to the principles of the organization. As stated in the Alliance’s constitution, the purpose of the organization was to “maintain the Black identity on Mercer’s campus by creating a self-conscious Black community promoting knowledge of Black culture and heritage, and serving as a forum for the expression of Black ideas and goals.”


Lou Johnson

Lou Johnson, Mercer’s first Black athlete, graduates from the University.

February 1970

February 1970

Mercer faculty approves an interdisciplinary program in Black Studies. The 1971-72 Bulletin includes courses such as “The American Black Experience,” “Civil Rights and the Black American,” “Manifestations of Prejudice,” and “Christian Social Ethics.”


Gary Johnson

Mercer alumnus Gary Johnson is appointed coordinator of the Black Studies program and becomes the first Black faculty member at Mercer.


Jerry Boykin

Jerry Boykin, J.D., is the first African-American to graduate from Mercer Law School.


The Stem of Jesse

The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School, a book about Mercer’s integration by Will Campbell, is published by the Mercer University Press.

January 1994

Sam Oni stands before a packed Willingham Auditorium audience at the University’s commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of integration. He received three standing ovations and was so impressed with what he deemed “the new Georgia” that he moved back to the state that same year.

Fall 2001

Dr. Andrew Silver, associate professor of English, writes the documentary play Combustible/Burn, performed at Mercer’s Backdoor Theatre. This play is the result of an intensive project, funded by a grant from University Commons, in which four Mercer students help Dr. Silver interview a total of 120 people active in the early civil rights movement in Macon. Nearly every word of the play comes directly from these interviews and the research Dr. Silver and the students conducted in Mercer’s Jack Tarver Library.


Mercer opens its yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the University’s integration with a convocation in Willingham Auditorium featuring a keynote speech by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and civil rights pioneer Andrew Young.