Sam Oni featured as keynote speaker at Beloved Community Symposium

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the most segregated hour of the week in our communities was 11:00 a.m. on Sundays.” According to Dr. John Dunaway, Professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies, “this fact has not changed much over the last 46 years.” In an effort to fight this form of modern segregation, Dunaway has spent the last 10 years organizing the annual Beloved Community Symposium.

Each year’s symposium has featured different keynote speakers. This year, the symposium’s theme reflects Mercer’s yearlong celebration, “Looking Back and Moving Forward: 50 Years of Integration at Mercer” and will feature Sam Oni, Mercer’s first black student, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts in 1967.

Oni was born in Nigeria and lived in Ghana until he met Mercer graduate and missionary Harris Mobley who had connections with the Mercer administration. Through his connections, Mobley contacted Mercer president Rufus Harris and suggested Oni be admitted as Mercer’s first black student. Soon afterward, Oni arrived at Mercer in the fall of 1963.

As a student, Oni faced many challenges. His first night on campus, he was visited by the pastor of Tattnall Square Baptist Church, now Newton Chapel, who told Oni that the church’s congregation had voted to bar him from attending the church. While Oni was later able to attend services at Vineville Baptist Church, it was in his senior year that he decided to try attending Tattnall Square Baptist for a service. He was quickly arrested on the church steps.

While the symposium is an annual event, Dunaway and other organizers spend much of the year working with churches in the local community. “We want to create a community where members of historically white churches cooperate with those of historically black churches to better the community as a whole,” Dunaway said.

To do this, Dunaway helps coordinate with the local clergy to organize large “unity services” where members from nearby churches attend a service that incorporates choirs and pastors from both black churches and white churches. At the last unity service in September, over 300 people attended.

Furthering the spirit of cooperation between the churches, Dunaway has also helped organize different volunteer activities that incorporate the different churches. Ultimately, the goal of these activities is to build what Dunaway calls a “beloved community.” According to him, a beloved community “is a community that is suffused with love. It’s only love and forgiveness that can overcome the kind of racial barriers that separate us. To remove these barriers, we must recognize the things that unite us as fellow human beings.”

The symposium will take place Tuesday, Feb. 18, and Wednesday, Feb. 19, and is open to all students and members of the public. Activities kick off Tuesday night with a banquet in the President’s Dining Room where Oni will make his first speech. The following morning will feature a breakfast in the Fellowship Hall of Centenary United Methodist Church where magistrate court Judge William C Randall, the son of the Macon civil rights leader William P Randall, will speak. Wednesday morning will also include a second speech from Oni and a panel discussion, both held in Newton Chapel Sanctuary. The Symposium ends Wednesday at noon with a closing luncheon in the Sanctuary, presided by Mercer University Professor of Christian Ethics, Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee. Admission to all symposium sessions is free, though reservations are required for meals and can be made by contacting Trish Dunaway at (478) 475-9506 or [email protected] by Feb. 14.