Mercer commemorates civil rights movement

Mercer holds moment of silence, other events to commemorate civil rights

jmink@macon.comAugust 28, 2013 

Jaleel Menifee ventured Wednesday to Jesse Mercer Plaza at Mercer University, a bell in his hand, for an important reason.

The Mercer sophomore, and dozens of others, honored “a group of people who were willing to die for something as simple as equality,” Menifee said.

It’s been five decades since one of the most important years in the nation’s history, and Mercer is celebrating its role in the civil rights movement.

A moment of silence Wednesday in Jesse Mercer Plaza kicked off a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mercer’s integration. Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Mercer joined universities, churches and other organizations across the nation, that rang their bells and stood in silence at 3 p.m. -- the hour King delivered the historic speech.

“This is a speech that deals with justice,” said Marilyn Mindingall, senior vice provost of administration and special programs at Mercer. “It calls us to action, and it calls us to urgency. And those things are always relevant.”

For faculty and students who gathered in the plaza, the moment was both relevant and moving. As the hour approached, the circle of people stood in silence. Then, as the church bells chimed at 3 p.m., they began shaking the small hand bells organizers distributed.

“This deserves to be honored,” said Claudia Luna-Priego, a Mercer sophomore. “He did something no one else could do.”

In addition to the speech, 2013 marks 50 years since the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and King’s letter from a Birmingham jail -- as well as Mercer’s integration.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that all educational institutions were to be integrated, many universities, particularly those in the South, resisted.

President Rufus Harris fought for the integration of Mercer, a move that was both supported and attacked. Sam Oni was Mercer’s first black student. While there were no violent conflicts, black students initially faced intolerance and racism, according to an online history of Mercer’s integration.

This year, Mercer will remember that time through events, forums and readings. The university will launch a website Sept. 6 -- www.50th.mercer.edu -- that will include events and a time line of the integration of Mercer.

The university is planning to host a panel discussion on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and Oni is expected to speak at the university, among other events, Mindingall said.

On Sept. 20, Andrew Young, former ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor, will speak during a 3 p.m. convocation at Willingham Hall. Tickets are limited and will be available first to students and faculty, and any remaining tickets will be available to the public Sept. 18-19 at the University Center box office. Additionally, the convocation will be streamed online and broadcast live in the medical school auditorium, Mindingall said.

As the sound of the bells faded, students and faculty picked up their belongings and quietly dispersed.

“To do something as simple as ringing a bell shows great improvement from 50 years ago,” Menifee said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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