Pictured above, Sam Oni as a young man into his Civil Rights Activist Years, Dr. Donald Baxter and a now "fully integrated" team at Mercer University under Head Men's Basketball Coach Bob Hoffman. Coach heard Sam and Don speak at the Founder's Dinner and were moved by their powerful testimony of life long friendship. They were more than champions through every circumstance.
Don Baxter had to look at all the prejudice directly in the face and this courage, bonded he and Sam together. Through their uniting in friendship for only a short time, they rose above the clutter to become real ambassadors of hope and truth.
Sam Oni knew he was walking into what would be a hostile environment, but he had no idea what this would really entail. Sam's ability to undergo the real pain of prejudice brings Mercer University and President Underwood the ability to "highlight" the great friendship in the 50th anniversary of desegregation to the heralded college.
Sam came from Africa and believed there was a better way...
In the summer of 1963 a young African athlete and leader from Western Nigeria was encouraged by a U.S. missionary to come to America for his education. Sam had so many promising attributes and it just seemed like the right thing to do, but there were issues for Sam and would it be the “right time” in the midst of hated racial divides. Because a century earlier, missionaries had came to Sam's homeland to the African tribe of Yoruba. They were embraced by the tribe and Sam Oni, was an all around promising student, an athlete back home and a leader whose eyes for achievement illuminated all who met him. He just wanted a good education.
Mercer University’s president knew churches in the deep South would have a "problem" with integration, because even secondary schools were divided and segregated. However, he was ready to take a lead like no other. Martin Luther King made the profound statement, “The worst day of segregation all week, is on Sunday from 11 to noon!" Where churches were racially divided, was the larger problem and the elephant in the room”. Don Baxter had met Dr. King and he learned that sports could help change the "clouds" of racial problems.
Sam was admitted to Mercer and he came to America with high hopes, full knowing that there would be confict, but he was coming to be part of a solution. He came with a purpose but the church would deny him, the very church which sent missionaries to his own people who embraced the missionary. On a hot Friday afternoon In August he was being assigned to a roommate, Don Baxter. Don was talked into accepting Sam as his roommate and now, a new wind of desegregation was beginning.
Don was the biggest man on campus and he would be a future Mercer Hall of Fame starting center for the men’s basketball team. Don came to Mercer and was considering being a pastor in his young college career, but that would soon change. He had a few years earlier met Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King in his high school and realized how valuable it was to see people for who they were in the heart, not the color of their skin. A foreshadowing would serve him well and his relationship with Sam.
On Saturday after his arrival, a local pastor from the church on campus came and knocked on thier dorm room to welcome the new student and bring some instructions. Don opened the door and the pastor introduced himself as Clifton Forester and was there to welcome Sam to Mercer University, but also remind him, “Sam would not be welcome to worship at his church this coming Sunday”. This racists comment and prejudicial move began a series of civil rights conflicts which only escalated into great pain for Sam and all associated.
This heroic journey of Sam Oni, an unsung hero, rejected by the very church which encouraged him to America, stands as a beacon of truth to all through the desegregation issues he faced. His mercy and his love for the family of man allowed him to derive strength from his family African upbringing, loyalty to all people demonstrated by his wonderful tribe and resolve to be part of the solution, not the problem. This journey changed all who met him and his love of man and inspired a college to honor him at Founder's Day fifty years later when Don and Sam spoke together in front of many, including the Mercer Men's basketball coaches.
Don Baxter, has become a world renowned surgeon based in Houston, Texas. Sam and Don both are lifelong friends and publicly shared their spirit and thankfulness in being honored at Mercer by University President William D. Underwood and the Board of Directors for beginning "integration" at college. Mercer is currently close to 40% African American students today since 1963. Desegregation stories in the South is the primary focus in the features & series wrapped around the hardwood floors of basketball and cemented in the trials of INEQUALITY.
We are honored as a filmmaking team to bring these powerful and true desegregation stories to life through this group of amazing college and secondary schools, churches and our society which should learn from courage, wisdom and grace displayed. The friendship of Sam and Don coupled with the champions of schools who learned to love past a color divide, were amazing truths worth revisiting.
So what can we learn from these people today and others? Should churches continue to be as segregated as they are even now, we don't think so at all. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded all of us of this danger. MORE THAN CHAMPIONS will address these important lessons being reflected through the eyes of great championship individuals, teams and basketball players with amazing hearts for family and friendships.
Sam was right all along, there was a better way...