A RACIAL DIVIDE, AMONG CHAMPIONS WHO OPENLY SAW A BETTER WAY TO LIVE...
Our stories of racial divide are addressed by the champions who saw the world differently. Reconciliation did not begin inside the prejudice from the churches during the Civil Rights movement, but strangely enough, answers of goodwill were found on hardwood basketball courts and in gymnasiums during the fields of competition where games fostered true friendship. Their challenge came in coping with segregated cultures and desegregating their worlds. During this entire series documentary film, players of championship teams will "open up" to discuss the truly great moments and most difficult challenges in their lives of segregation. They will delve into an unsung hero in the life of people like Sam Oni and they will leave a legacy of what it means to be more than a "champion".
Meanwhile, on the Mercer basketball courts two teammates, Don Baxter and "Butch" Clifton, would find themselves facing a new kind of integration and competitor, a real champion for equality, Sam Oni an integrated student from Yoruba. He was Don's roommate, but not a basketball player, a different kind of champion. Some players wouldn't approve of Sam and Don even rooming together. These men carried an enormous bravery to bring a bold solution to a "southern" all white university during the adverse times of desegregation. Don was being denied passes while open under the basket, due to the racial divide their rooming together had created on the team. Things were getting worse.
Sam's presence was indeed controversial to some as it began Mercer's first "integrated student" attempt that would make history in the deep South. All the while desegregation and divided black and white schools were colliding. President Harris had made a bold move inviting Sam, but he knew the future needed to change.
However, the college president of Mercer knew churches would be in an uproar of the idea of integration, but he boldly took the right step, and changed history. Sam would soon learn how hard it was to be part of the solution. This decision started a landslide in the secondary schools which were also facing threats and these stories were shaping true champions.
HOW BASKETBALL BEGAN A DIALOGUE
Through Sam's story, he was introduced to a college sport originally created and designed to help heal by Mr. Naismith in the game of basketball. Since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Kansas, Georgia had begun the process of desegrating schools from Beach High School in Savannah and later with the rise of Mark Smith High School in Macon. However, the race issues were terrible and they were battling issues while wars on campuses and in schools were escalating into fights and more.
Many heroes emerged, but the villains of the KKK and racism were unfortunately becoming even more dominating during hard times. Southern schools saw sports begin to build a bridge between cultures and Sam watched this happen. While the church was rejecting him because of his color, sports were beginning to build bridges in racism as teams were also integrating. Young people were caught in the middle of the hatred.
In Savannah at the same time, Gator Rivers (the future Harlem Globetrotter) was playing for Beach High School and was feeling the persecution on another level as a local African American. There was a huge focus on championship play on the East Coast and his entire team and focus was becoming the first African American team to ever make the "state championships", which dampened the race issue, for a moment. Integration would be on the horizon and eventually become their reality.
Everyone was facing severe ridicule, prejudice and racial divisions too, but blacks were hurting even more. An enormous focus on athleticism pushed the school to the highest level of play, and a new level of basketball was seen which Pete Maravich and others would later emulate. Championship basketball was really changing as Gator and his amazing teammates were starting a trend. However, the pain would continue of racism even into his professional basketball career as a Harlem Globetrotter. The Globetrotters themselves would battle and survive harsh racism. Dr. King saw these talented basketball athletes from the Globetrotters as "men of goodwill".
During this time, Don had played with many teammates and some were continuing to even reject him more because of his roommate Sam Oni, but one teammate admirably paid close attention, Donald "Butch" Clifton. Butch in his childhood was “cut" from his junior high basketball team and would later go on to play for Mercer where he would start as a guard and later make the Hall of Fame at Mercer. While there, Butch saw how his younger teammate and "big man" Don were being persecuted by just being black and white roommates. Something needed to change and Coach Clifton along with many others would be a new solutions.
Coach Clifton like so many whites in Macon lived in a real "bubble" and they had no idea how bad it was for those of a different race. As a head coach, he would would pick up a young African American and include him on his team, because he did not see race, but a young boy with blind parents who needed friendship. He would use Mark Smith High School to show the world a championship team should be based on skills, not color.
MARK SMITH - MACON'S SMALL HIGH SCHOOL
When the new high school MARK SMITH HIGH SCHOOL was built in 1965, there was a teacher and coaching position available and Butch in 1967 became head basketball coach, but wanted to do things differently. That same year Coach Clifton went to observe the Georgia state high school basketball championship game where Gator Rivers from Beach High and his team was impressive on the court. The future of basketball was looking so different and it would begin with pushing the team, creating even more discipline and Coach Clifton was preparing for the new way to "play".
He saw the amazing team of BEACH HIGH from Savannah and wanted to one day play these champions. Coach Clifton didn't focus on the racism issue, but on the game's fundamentals and in life rose above the racial issues. His love for people and game while integrating saw him picking up African players to play on the Mark Smith team. He began a new tradition as one of the first desegregated schools in Georgia state history to make a championship team. The racial divide was growing and getting a lot worse off the court and the world was hurting as a result.
Four African girls were suddenly killed in the Sixteenth Street Church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama in the middle of all the basketball mania. This would only fuel the fears which continued on every side, but none had it worse, than people of color. These were stark reminders of horrible events taking place while basketball was continuing and championships just kept getting more and more competitive. Athletes wanted to compete as friends and racism was disrupting everything around itself. They were beginning to overcome and racism was found on both sides of the argument, with whites and blacks. People were angry and needed solutions. All the while, young people just saw the joy of playing a game they loved, with those of every color.
Coaches like Coach Clifton and others didn’t like what they saw happening and they set their minds to change. He saw the athletic excellence and the all African American team of BEACH HIGH win a state championship game by forty points. Two years later in 1969 the same team would eventually meet Mark Smith High in the second round of the tournament and Scott Judd would guard the talented Gator Rivers. Gator would go on to win the hearts of the Harlem Globetrotters, but even then, there was great prejudice still alive all over the nation and world.
So in the championship game in 1969 an audience of over 400,000 people statewide heard one of the biggest basketball match ups in Georgia history. On a Monday night, the African American team, Carver of Columbus with a seven foot freshman, and an integrated team from Mark Smith High shorter and highly disciplined would match up. The team members on this historic state championship team of 1969 were Charlie Anderson, Scott Judd, David Lee, Frank Prince, Cam Bonifay, Jag Gholson, Richard Peek,Clifford Moore, Ronnie Nelson, Minton Williams, Dirk Thomas, John Skalko, and Craig Hertwig. In a double over time game filled with lead changes, Mark Smith won it all and ended up in the Georgia High School Hall of Fame. Coach Clifton remembered the importance of harmony within the family of man and his heart toward the game, diminished the prejudice which was all around him. The racism was forgotten and suspended during celebration when blacks and whites cheered from the town of Macon, just like they had in Savannah.
A CITY FORGETS THE RACIAL DIVIDE FOR CELEBRATION
The entire town of Macon rallied around this desegregated team who inspired so many who were more than champions, so why? The celebration was bringing hope in the middle of the prejudice. On the road home from the championship game, black and white from the town gathered in Macon on the highway to stand and applaud as the team came home as sports had become an ambassador of goodwill and peace.
Just like what had transpired in 1967 for Savannah's Beach High when a city rallied and came together because of sports. For a moment, people forgot race just for celebration. Firemen had trucks out for Mark Smith High on both sides of the roads shooting blasts of water in an arch over the highway honoring the champions on their way home. This blended team was an example of being MORE THAN A CHAMPION.
Basketball reminded us of celebration and Sam reminded us all of grace by the way he lived and walked through the adversity which surrounded him. It happened simply because Sam Oni and early civil right leaders kept living, overcoming and inspiring people and teams to be different. They led all of us and we are honoring their worlds in this feature series.
THE MEANING OF A TROPHY
The world changed and now, the championships and trophies were all becoming secondary, and becoming people of character was even more paramount when they reflected together. The ethos of this film will challenge every audience to remember the family of man, as they always should be existing.
In the end, so many years later the lessons of Sam Oni, the lessons of the champions remind all of us, what is most important. It's not just enough to be a champion, to win a trophy and to think this is the ultimate goal, but there is something deeper and richer than miles of fans praising our athletic achievements.
To be more than a champion, to overcome adversity and to rise up when inequality raises its ugly head is the real trophy. We must begin to address these issues which still haunt our nation and world, even today. We must begin to look at life through the filter of being "all in" as part of the family of man.
When we do this, we learn what it means to be a champion in life, on and off the court. We begin to see our congregations in our churches change and become inclusive to all people and the dramatic difference we will make in our culture will stand as proof to the challenge of what it means to be for "all". All during this time, lynchings were taking place and sports was very far from the horrible acts being committed against humanity.
In the final quarter of 2016 a group of Mercer Students, Beach High School and Mark Smith championship basketball players gathered to talk about these serious issues. Desegregation had impacted all of their lives to differing degrees. In a time of serious racial conflict, there were many different reflections from the past.
Championships change people, state trophies cause us to rally, but what would it mean to live a life that is "more than a champion"? Fortunately, the men and women involved in this franchise are creating a series of film projects. This feature documentary, feature film and television series illuminates life greater than any trophy which was ever the "end goal". The family of man would "win" in the end and the greatest champions became life long friends.
In the end, Mark Smith High School was more than just another small school whose coach believed in the lessons learned from Sam Oni & Don Baxter at Mercer. They had a magical union among team and coach whose historic rise remains today.
For history, this was one of the first "integrated teams" of black and white team members, living in a desegregated world. They had learned to love one another and did not see race, color but just a desire to win and to be a champion together.
Today, Jag Gholson, our Executive Producer spent years with a dream to share this amazing story, and this championship team embodied everthing Sam dreamed would become true! We honor these MORE THAN CHAMPIONS in this true film of hope.
BELOW are pictures of racism from the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama which stand as reminders of how bad it was during the Southern States in the sixties.
The headlines after the bombings of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing the four children continue today to remind us all, of a period of time we pray will never return in our nation's history.
Below are more horrible pictures of the Ku Klux Klan and their racial protests wrongly portraying faith. These are prejudiced symbols of hatred, cruelty and persecution and remind us of a horrible time. These photographs are located at the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.
In the last quarter of 2016, Gator Rivers and Miller Bargeron brought the 1967 state championship trophy from Beach High. They gathered with Sam Oni next to Coach Clifton and his wife beside Jag Gholson, the Executive producer.
On the top row were Scott Judd, Charlie Anderson and David Lee of the Mark Smith championship 1969 team. The reunion sparked life long friendships and represents a solution for us today.