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Great Debate On Black Colleges




In 1935, in a small town in the deep South, a big thing happened. Black students formed a virtually unbeatable debate team and proved a smaller school could hold its own against more powerful universities. Now Hollywood is shining a spotlight on the story, and hoping modern audiences will applaud these "great debaters" and their gutsy coach. Reed Galin tells us more.

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Clip from "The Great Debaters": "My message to you is to never quit."

As the star, and director, of "The Great Debaters" Oscar winner Denzel Washington wants to send a message to moviegoers that knowledge is power.

Scenes from "The Great Debaters": "Gentlemen and lady, debate is combat, but your weapons are words."

Washington portrays Melvin Tolson, who coached a successful debate team at a tiny Methodist college in Texas called all-black school during a desperate time.

Denzel Washington: "The founding fathers of these schools understood that importance. We were in the middle of the Depression, so your options were education or share-cropping, or unemployment."
Scenes from "The Great Debaters": "I, and every other professor on this campus, are here to help you find, take back and keep your righteous mind."

Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films produced the project.

Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Films: "Here is this little college that nobody's ever heard of in the 1930s, in a land that thought that you were invisible and thought that your worth really didn't matter. And this debate team believed that the color of your skin wasn't what was significant, but what was really the content of your mind and your character and your beliefs."

The onscreen actors spent time offscreen reflecting on the importance of schools like Wiley...then and now.

Jurnee Smollett, Actor: "Most of them were founded right after the Civil War and it's no coincidence. It was something that had been denied an entire population. You were beaten or killed sometimes if you were caught with a book. How dare you try to read or educate yourself. And so once this population was freed, they had such a hunger."

Scenes from "The Great Debaters": "It's clear you have no evidence to arrest Mr. Tolson. I suggest you let him go."

Another Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, portrays scholar James Farmer, Sr., Tolson's contemporary at Wiley. The actor believes historically black schools have great relevance.

Forest Whitaker, Actor: "A lot of the accomplishments of people of color aren't really shown. And I think this is an opportunity for us to really grab a hold of our spirit as we go out into the world."

Haywood L. Strickland, President of Wiley College: "Since 2000, we went from 520 something students to 930 this year."

Wiley's current president says the attention to this historic school has already created change and a new generation of great debaters may well be on the way thanks to the school's resurrected forensics program.

Haywood L. Strickland, President of Wiley College: "We think the students are excited about the prospects. They're certainly excited about Oprah and Denzel, but they're just as excited about the prospects of what a college education can do."

(Locator: Marshall, Texas)

Jurnee Smolle, Actor: "It's really great for us to be able to come and show you the film, because we're doing it for you! The movie's bigger than all of us."

The cast attended the film's debut on Wiley's campus.

Denzel Washington: "I'm just pleased as punch for these young people, and for the people that came before us."

Nate Parker, Actor: "These people even then had no idea they'd have this kind of effect on the world, and that's the main reason why we should try to follow in their footsteps. You never know, if we have the courage to stand up and lift our voice 70 yrs from now, they could be talking about the things we've done."

Scene from "The Great Debaters": "A hungry Negro steals a chicken he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds, he goes to Congress. I think that's wrong."

Denzel Washington: "Hopefully the adults can relate to the teachers and the importance of educating our young people, whether you are a professor, a minister, a community leader, a Boys and Girls Club counselor, whatever you are. Our young people are listening to us, and we lead by example."

Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Films: "You come away from this film deeply moved by the humanity of what it took to be successful in a time when nobody thought you could."

Scenes from "The Great Debaters": "The time for justice is always right now! She's good. (People chant) Wiley! Wiley! Wiley!"


In 2007, Denzel Washington announced a one million dollar gift to support Wiley's new debate team.
He announced another pledge of one million dollars for the team in 2018. 

You can learn more about Wiley College by visiting The United Methodist Black College Fund supports Wiley and ten other historically black schools.

See other African American contributions to the church. 

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Fran Walsh, 615-742-5458.

This video was first posted on December 24, 2007.