Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Great Debaters - the pen is mightier than the sword

Last Tuesday we watched the inspiring movie "The Great Debaters" (2007) directed by Denzel Washington, and produced by Oprah Winfrey. The movie is based on an article written in a magazine called "American Legacy". This magazine covers subjects of African-American history and culture, and it was in the Spring 1997 issue, that an article was written about the Wiley College 1935 debate team. But to what extent is this movie inspired and based on a true story?

Melvin Tolson. Source: Google Images

It is a fact that the successful debate team was coached by professor and poet Melvin Tolson (played by Denzel Washington), and that Wiley College, in the town of Marshall, Texas, was a real black college. It is what you call a historically black college, established with the intention of serving the black community. The movie is set in the 1930's, an era of segregation in the US. Melvin Tolson was described as a person of impressive intellect, by students who admired him. Despite it being a turbulent time for blacks in the US, he encouraged his students to stand up for their rights, and express themselves through words.  The members on the real 1935 debate team were:  James L. Farmer jr, (being the captain of the team and only 14 years old), Hamilton Boswell and Henry Heights. I read an article online written by the daughter of Hamilton Boswell, who says that there never was a girl on the debate team. I choose to believe this source, but I have read on other websites that there actually was a female member, named Henrietta Bell Wells. 

JamesL.Farmer jr is the most renowned member of the debate team. In the movie, he is shocked to see his respectful father humiliated by a white man, and not doing anything. This is partly true, as something similar happened in real life. The father of James L.Farmer had to lie to a manager of a train in order to get a bedroom. James L.Farmer had been just as shocked as the movie depicted. The event on the train was when Farmer began to dedicate his life to the end of segregation. In 1942, James L.Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality. He continued debating, and once said: "I debated Malcolm X four times and beat him. I'd think, come off it, Malcolm, you can't win. You didn't come up under Tolson". 

In the movie, the debate team makes it to the national championship. This also happened in real life, but the opponent was not Harvard University. After having met and won over countless black and white universities, they met the Trojans on April the 1st. They were the national championships, and were students at the University of Southern California. Before a mixed audience of 2000 people, they won the debate. How I would have loved to see that debate! I read an article written by Hobart Jarrett a professor from Texas who described what one had to do during a debate: "The debater must be able to escape from the most perplexing dilemmas and antinomies. Every man must learn to take it as well as give it. He must be able to think coolly under fire. The platform can be a very hot place, especially in an interracial debate."

I stumbled upon USC's (University of Southern Carolina) website, and I found some interesting information. Four days ago, it was announced on the website that their Trojan debate squad would be going to Texas on January the 27th, for a rematch of the famous debate between USC and Wiley College! The situation is a whole lot different today, but it would be great fun if Wiley won again. The students from Wiley say they are humbled to be a part of this, and to be representing Wiley. Read more about it here:



  1. Wow, you have done great research. I didn't know any of this, it was really interesting for me to read this. I think it was particularly nice touch how you investigated whether there had been a female on the debate team and how the final debate was. And also that there will be a rematch. Thank you for a great post, I enjoyed reading it.

  2. G'day Sara,
    Thanks for registering for the March 2012 student blogging challenge. Make sure you visit the blog every week beginning early March, when the first challenge will be published. If you want a reminder sent to your email each week, use the "Subscribe by email" on the right sidebar of the blog. Also make sure you visit blogs from other students around the world with similar interests.

    Miss W or tasteach - challenge organizer