Debating for Change: Race, Politics, and Jim Crow

A closer look at the actions behind the debaters' rhetoric in The Great Debaters.

By Jonathan Adams Feb 19, 2008

 As a former high school debater from the South who unabashedly maintains long affairs with both philosophical inquiry and Lifetime movies, I may be the perfect target audience for The Great Debaters. But even those who are more skeptical about a film structured around simple clichés may find that it leaves them moved. The film’s powerful political  themes and tearful dramatic scenes push past the limits of its predictable format.

The Great Debaters is, as the saying goes, “based on a true story.” It chronicles a black debate team from Wiley College that –through their coach’s inspiration – integrates the halls of ivy to stand against the top white debate teams in the country. These debaters were not only arguing the competition’s given topics, but, as the movie shows, the students were asserting their existence as equal human beings amidst the harsh realities of Jim Crow. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters has been criticized for embellishing the team’s actual history. Often cited is the fact that the “national champion” that Wiley College defeated in 1935 was the University of Southern California, not Harvard, or that there was no woman on that team.


But Wiley College did defeat USC, Oxford University and a string of other white institutions. Wiley’s was the first black team to debate – and defeat – a team from a white school, in a 1930 contest against law students from the University of Michigan. And at that time, the team did include a remarkable woman named Henrietta Wells, who is still alive and was interviewed by The Great Debaters’creators. In the end, their revisions took nothing away from the film for me.

Washington plays Melvin Tolson, Jr., Wiley College’s debate coach during the 1930s. The real Melvin Tolson had brought the intellectual ferment of the Harlem renaissance to the backwater town of Marshall, Texas. A scholar and a poet (another piece left out of the movie), Tolson used words as both tools of art and political weapons. As a professor at Wiley College, the rhetorician taught his students American authors and German philosophers and raised existential questions about freedom and equality in class discussions. Like many artists and scholars during his time, Tolson was rumored to be a Communist. At night, he organized secret meetings to unionize local sharecroppers.

The juxtaposition of Tolson’s two selves (the daytime professor and the nighttime organizer) is the truest success of this film. Tolson’s dual role shakes up the notion of a “Talented Tenth” intellectual; he sees that intellectuals build social power not by separating themselves from “the masses,” but rather by finding ways to connect with them. Tolson wanted not just the accolades of academia but to be part of a movement for change in the broader world.

The tension in the movie between Tolson and religion professor James Farmer Sr., played by Academy Award-winner Forrest Whitaker, also highlights the relationship between the roles of scholar and activist. Farmer Sr. wants his son, James Farmer Jr., to steer clear of social conflict and focus simply on his studies, staying on the safe path to a churchgoing middle-class intellectual like his father, who is the college’s president. Tolson, in contrast, believes that a “righteous mind” can only exist concurrently with action.

This plays out not only in the relationship between Tolson and Farmer Sr. but also in the relationship that each has with the white men in town. In a town where lynching and violent intimidation were used daily to thwart change, Tolson and Farmer choose different ways to navigate the treacherous conflict along the color line. James Farmer Sr.’s dealings with white men reflect not only the mechanics of structural racism but the know-how needed to maneuver within this system.When his car hits a white sharecropper’s pig, he is forced to bow his head to the power of race despite having more money, education and intelligence than the man who threatens him. The college president is resolved to accept humiliation to protect his family, a decision that seems as painful as it necessary.

Farmer is not a radical man, and challenging racism is not an option for him. Tolson, on the other hand, makes a decision to work against Jim Crow by organizing with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. Tolson illegally gathers this group of men not to debate the poor conditions of the sharecroppers but to tackle the problem. It is a decision that carries some risk: when black and white sharecroppers start meeting together, the local authorities are determined to stop them.


The same white man who had humiliated Farmer Sr. and called him “boy” also heckles Tolson as he addresses a sharecroppers’ meeting. But the heckler stays at the meeting because the union is key to changing his economic situation, even if he has to be led
by a black man. By bringing men across the color line to work together, and by crossing a class line in order do so, Tolson, as a scholar-activist, confronts inequality beyond the realm of debate.

The young students in the movie, played by Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker, also learn the importance of flexibly working at the nexus of rhetoric and action. After being attacked by a lynch mob and seeing Tolson being punished for his
work with the union, the team members discuss whether their participation in the debating society is worthwhile. They resolve the question by putting the violent reality of segregation at the center of their argument onstage and by resolving to challenge it in their lives after graduation. James Farmer Jr., the character most closely based on an actual debate team member, goes on to found the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).


Despite what might be the emotionally manipulative qualities of its made-for-TV approach, The Great Debaters gives the audience more than a convenient cry. It offers an indelible lesson about working toward change. This feel-good movie makes clear that change does not come from a feel-good discussion; it requires a grueling struggle, like Tolson’s, that is most certainly multiracial, intergenerational and involves working across class lines. This kind of unity does not come easy – it’s also a product of struggle. The movie’s tagline, “When the nation was in need, he inspired them to give us hope,” describes Melvin Tolson as a unifying protagonist.

This is one-sided or even misleading; Tolson was a skilled practitioner of confrontation. Here the movie’s debates, in which the Wiley debate team grapples with race and change, stand in contrast to today’s presidential debates, where the word “change” is used often but the substance seems lacking.

The movie’s tagline reminds me of the way Barack Obama’s image has been portrayed in this campaign. This youthful black man has become a symbol for many people who sincerely desire change. The success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is only possible because of the work of Melvin Tolson and others like him to challenge the status quo – and from the vantage of the time in which the film is set, the idea of a black president looks almost revolutionary.


But while Obama is said to have inspired a generation, this inspiration has yet to strike me as The Great Debaters did, because Obama’s grand government prose is missing something. He promises to lead the nation down a path toward reconciliation on race, but it isn’t possible to resolve a conflict without first addressing it. Like Farmer, Obama is a black man who seems to deal with race only when he is forced to do so. In his attempts to
transcend race with his rhetoric, he misses the opportunity to lead the way to real change.

Barack Obama should follow the movie’s example if he wants to make his rhetoric real. If he directly addresses today’s conflicts around racial and economic injustice – like the Wiley debaters did on the Harvard stage or like Tolson did in his organizing work –Obama can be a unifying figure for the nation. Before there can be real unity, we need more than a feelgood discussion: we have to confront the problems that divide and stratify this country. Only then can we begin to change them.