The Great Debaters


To me, this is one of the must-see movies when it comes to African American History. A movie that shows a positive image of young African American people debating against white colleges during the 1930s. It is a very real and emotional movie, with only a few flaws and stereotypes in it, but the history behind this movie is worth knowing!

The history behind the Great Debaters

In 1924, Melvin Tolson accepted a position as instructor of English and speech at Wiley College. While at Wiley, he taught, wrote poetry and novels, coached football and directed plays. In 1929, Tolson coached the Wiley debate teams, which established a ten-year winning streak. The Debate Team beat the larger black schools of its day like Tuskegee, Fisk and Howard.

After a visit to Texas, Langston Hughes wrote that “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him.”

According to James Farmer, Tolson’s drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them-before the actual debate.

In 1930, he pursued a master’s degree in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; met V.F. Calverton, editor of Modern Quarterly; wrote “Cabbages and Caviar” column for The Washington Tribune and organized sharecroppers in South Texas.

In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people. In 1947 he was appointed poet laureate of Liberia by President V. S. Tubman. He left Wiley to become professor of English and Drama at Langston University in Oklahoma.

Historical events that occurred during this time

This happened around the 1930s.

  • The 1930’s were a turbulent time for race relations in America. Despite the decline of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan (which had enjoyed renewed support during the 1910’s and 1920’s) racism was as strong as ever in the Southern states. Furthermore, as this picture alluedes to, the increased presence of Black Americans in Northern cities (where many had migrated during WWII and especially during the Depression) resulted in increased tension between the races there as well.
  • African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, in the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement.Most African Americans followed the Jim Crow laws, using a mask of compliance to prevent becoming victims of racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.
  • In the last decade of the 19th century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States. These discriminatory acts included racial segregation—upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities
  • Many New Deal programs gave black Americans opportunities they had often lacked in the past, while also helping to bring their daily struggles to light for Northerners. Such federal programs as The Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Federal Writers project enabled black artists to find word during the depression, often times creating art or stories which portrayed the historic and present situation of blacks in the South. Projects chronicling the lives of former slaves were also begun under the auspices of these programs. At the same time competition for WPA (Works Project Administration) jobs in the South during the thirties also brought to light the persisitence of inequality even in the government. Since the WPA required that eligibile employes not have refused any private sector jobs at the “prevailing wage” for such jobs, African-Americans (who were paid less on average then whites in the South) might be refused WPA jobs which whites were eligible for. Such discrimination often extended to Hispanic-Americans in the Southwest as well. Despite such difficulties, WPA head Harry Hopkins worked with NAACP leaders to prevent discrimination whenever possible resulting in general support for the programs (and the government) by the black community.
  • Black Americans also received increased visibility during this decade for less auspicious reasons, resulting in bitter political conflict within the Democratic Party. While the South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War, the Roosevelt administration actively appealed to African-Americans to join their party, thus alienating many Southerners. The growing divide between Northern and Southern Democrats over the issue of race came to a head in April 1937, when a bitter fight over an anti-lynching bill took place in the House of Representatives. In the wake of a gruesome double lynching in Mississippi (only one of more than a hundred which had taken place since 1930) The House passed the anti-lynching resolution, despite the opposition of all but one Southern member. Declaring that the South had been “deserted by the Democrats of the North” former Roosevelt supporters in the Senate carried out a six week long filibuster which resulted in the withdrawel of the bill in February 1938. This bitter political fight was indicative of the racism and regional conflict still firmly instrenched in America in the 1930s
  • What is the significance of Wiley College?

For over 130 years, Wiley College has been a center of learning for all who sought to enter its doors. Primarily, however, it has served African Americans and other minorities. The College was founded in 1873 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the purpose of providing education to the “newly freed men” and preparing them for a new life. The College is currently affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Increasingly, students of other races, as well as international students, are finding Wiley College to be an attractive place to acquire a college education.

Since the selection of the site and initial planning of the buildings on which the College is located, the campus of Wiley College is now comprised of 17 permanent structures for teaching, learning, and research as well as residential housing for students. Wiley College is one of three institutions of higher learning situated in Marshall, which has an estimated population of 25,000 people and growing.

The school is located in Harrison County on 63 acres of land west of Marshall, Texas and between Dallas to the west and Shreveport to the east. This location offers access to the amenities of both cities and, at the same time, provides a perfect environment for student learning and intellectual growth away from the hustle and bustle of big city life. A major airport is located in Shreveport, just thirty minutes away from the College.

Initially, the purpose of Wiley College was to focus mainly on training teachers for careers at black elementary and secondary schools. It has since grown from a vocational college to an institution that awards an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degrees in 17 disciplines including, English, biology, business, computer science, and social sciences, etc. Additionally, the College is recognized for providing higher education opportunities to non-traditional students through its Organizational Management Program and its Criminal Justice Administration program. Wiley College students receive a quality education, are competitive, and certainly get their money’s worth in dollar value. The school has one of the best student-faculty ratios in the nation. This enables the College to provide an individualized learning environment, where students are more than a number.

 I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. However, how they can let such a huge mistake fall through the cracks at the end is incredible.


In the final debate, the Harvard student rebuts on the quote from Thoreau by saying that Adolf Hitler agreed with it. This movie was taking place in the early 1930s. World War II started in 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.


~ by Colorful Soul on 11/08/2012.

2 Responses to “The Great Debaters”

  1. Reblogged this on Sirkenayo's Blog.

  2. One of my favorite movies of all time! Great post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: