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‘Great Debaters’ challenge Ole Miss to historic debate

More than seven decades after “The Great Debaters” of Wiley College in made history by knocking off the national champs, the latest version of the team will take the stage in Memphis for another historic contest.

by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell
Special to the Tri-State Defender

More than seven decades after “The Great Debaters” of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas made history by knocking off the national champs of the University of Southern California, the latest version of the team will take the stage in Memphis for another historic contest.

This time the opponent is the University of Mississippi at Oxford, with the two squads facing off on Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 7 p.m. at New Sardis Baptist Church. The teams will ponder “Whether President Obama Should Be Re-elected or Not.”

 “The Great Debaters” of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. (Courtesy photo)

 The University of Mississippi debate team. (Courtesy photo)

“The fact that this debate is taking place reflects the great transformation which Ole Miss has undergone over the past few decades,” said the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church and the event’s host.

“This marks a new day in Mississippi and a new era in the South. Students making logical arguments and issuing rebuttals gain invaluable experience in critical thinking and persuasive delivery. I think we will all learn a great deal from these students.”

The backdrop

The year was 1935. Professor Melvin B. Tolson of Wiley College made the long journey to Los Angeles with his “Great Debaters” to challenge the nation’s champion debate team at the University of Southern California (USC).

Tolson’s students were grandchildren of former slaves, polished in the art of persuasive argument and public speaking. Their challenge to face USC seemed more than ambitious; it was ludicrous. However, the small east Texas school had beaten every noted “black” institution in the country. An interracial challenge was imminent. Tolson and his team understood all the implications – “winner take all.”

As the saga unfolded, a dramatic spectacle was being staged. Tolson’s debaters were not only brilliant and skillful debaters; they had also studied theatrical techniques of live stage acting under his watchful eye. Quite early in the contest, it was evident that USC was no match for Tolson’s team. The unthinkable happened: David had slain Goliath. Descendents of slaves had crushed the nation’s collegiate debate champions.

Their victory, however, was hollow and more symbolic than substantive. “Negro colleges” could not be members of the Debate Society. Therefore, the championship title remained with USC. The mere satisfaction of winning had to suffice for the Wiley team.

Every student stands to gain

Christopher Medina, director of Forensics and debate coach at Wiley College, called the upcoming showdown “a significant endeavor of intellectual pursuit.”

“There is great value in our students engaging in the deductive process of intellectual struggle,” he told The New Tri-State Defender. “The skills developed in the art of communicating and thoughtful persuasion will follow them long after they leave Wiley College. We are looking to implement elements of debating across the curriculum. Every student stands to gain, no matter what their area of pursuit.”

JoAnn Edwards, director of Forensics and debate coach at Ole Miss, welcomed the challenge, under one condition.

“I agreed that we would participate in this debate, provided that both teams be prepared to argue the pros and cons on each side of the question,” she said. “Neither team will know their stance until the night of the debate when a coin is tossed. This is an exhibition debate. Together, we can explore through logical thought, what our own convictions are as we approach the election season.”

A panel of judges will hear the debate, and the winner will be determined by the end of the contest. The Melvin B. Tolson Trophy is the coveted prize.

‘The Great Debaters’ – the movie

“When I first saw the movie, I was in awe that these students withstood all they faced and came out victorious, despite all the racism they experienced. Back in 2007, I had not yet joined the Wiley College faculty. But it was an inspiring story of determination and resolve.

“Professor Tolson was an extraordinary man who was driven to win. In the movie, the defeated team was Harvard University, rather than USC – ‘to demonstrate the heights Wiley College achieved,’ according to the screen writer.

“Professor Tolson left us a tremendous legacy of excellence in debating – a legacy we have sought to continue. We are proud of our school and what he did here. And we are all excited about meeting the Ole Miss debate team in the city of Memphis.”

Christopher Medina
Wiley College Debate Coach

‘It just came to me’

“I was just sitting in my office thinking about what we could do this year to celebrate Black History Month,” said Dr. Gray.

“And then it came to me. Debate is a long and celebrated tradition by which students have honed their craft in critical thinking. The problem-solving skills gleaned from argument and debate offer practical abilities, which enhance the education process.

“Debating is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit of truth. Just the character-building properties, themselves, are priceless…”

– Dr. L. LaSimba Gray

(For more information and reservations, call 901-754-3979. New Sardis Baptist Church is located at 7739 E. Holmes Road.)


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