12.07.2007

The Great Debaters

WOW! Debaters as heroes. I see they’re making a movie about Wiley College’s debate team of 1935—Denzel Washington is its director and star. Briefly, in 1935 Melvin B. Tolson, a poet and teacher, coached the debate team to a victory against USC (tho’ in the film it’s Harvard). What the film doesn’t mention, according to the New York Times article (December 5, 2007, A1, 27)--the link is to this article--is that “even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they did not belong to the debate society, Pi Kappa Delta, which did not allow black members until after World War II.”
One of the debaters, btw, was James Farmer Jr. who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality (1942).
Wiley, which has been under financial pressure for years, is hoping for a renewal with this film. Already the Administration building has been given a face-lift for the film and Wal-Mart has endowed a Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship Fund with a $100,000 donation.
You can listen to an interview with Hamilton Boswell discussing his being a part of Tolson’s debate team at nytimes.com/national.

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