Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Debates and debating – part 1

Posted by John Montgomery on October 4, 2008

I’ve been thinking about debating recently. That’s not surprising. Last night, Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden went at it in what may have been the most watched vice-presidential candidate debate in several years. Of course, the largest group in attendance was the pundits. I missed half of the event because I don’t have high definition TV. I missed the squiggly lines that immediately reflect focus group attitudes and the commentator scorecards as well. How could we have proceeded with political debates in the past without these new innovations? Obama and McCain participate in their second debate of the season next Tuesday night.

For the moment, though I’m going to hold my comments both about the current state of cultural war reflected in our national politics and also that public discussion imitated in the sort of deteriorated and embarrassing conversations that seem to dominate comments on church sponsored social networking sites.

Instead, I want to set the stage tonight for those reflections by blogging a bit about a recently released movie in DVD, The Great Debaters. Produced by Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey and her harpo production group and others, the movie tells anew the compelling story of the almost forgotten Wiley College Debate Team active over a 15 year period beginning around 1923. The movie is based on Tony Scherman’s American Legacy article published in the Spring of 1997 by the same name.

Grounded in research conducted with just a few pieces of paper and the remembrances of three to four old eyewitnesses who probably invented as much as they remembered, a fascinating fact of history is now very much alive for a new generation.

I love historians, digging through archives and backroom shelves and ancient collections especially when what was almost once lost might now be found. I was not particularly trained as a historian, but I can appreciate the dynamics of what went on here. As part of my UMC history class during seminary days, I decided to see if I could learn a bit about an old church and burying ground by the side of the highway to Poplar Bluff, Missouri in Wayne County. Apparently, as the story went, my great, great, great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Montgomery donated the land for a small church. Montgomery Chapel, as it had been called over the years, was this mysterious family legend.

To meet the requirements of the course, I decided to dig around and see what could be found. To my great delight and my family’s edification, I happened on a series of 12 letters published in the St. Louis Christian Advocate, by the Reverend T.J. Lightfoot chronicling the establishment of several charges in that desolate section of Missouri. Some things became clear. Benjamin donated his wife’s land! And he had apparently waited some fifteen years after first donating land for the local school to take care of family and community religious life. Some of my detractors would not be surprised to find that enlightenment thinking didn’t start with me in our family! My point here is how fragile some of our memories are. Without the dedicated effort of Tony Scherman, this story might not have been told. I love historians.

Interwoven around the main plot, we find stories that introduce us to a fascinating set of characters. We start with a preacher’s son named Melvin B. Tolson (played by Washington) who arrived to teach at Wiley, an all-Black Methodist college in Marshall, Texas. He was a fiery English teacher, who only years later would become recognized as a poet himself. For some 15 years, was the “mastermind coach” of the debate squad. Scherman writes, “In the 1920s and 1930s intercollegiate debating was a spectator sport. Tolson’s oldest son, Melvin Jr. was a rapt fan. “Remember, there was no television then, he says. “Debating was so popular, you could charge admission and expect a full house. At Wiley, when you had debates, what ever team was coming, it was a prize occasion. People piled in.”

Debate teams consisted of four members, but only two would give a ten minute presentation and a rebuttal. Again Scherman writes, “The topics were timely and apt to be controversial: equal rights, freedom of speech, major pieces of legislation.

Of course, these activities occurred within the relative safety of the college communities. However, that safety resides in a larger context of Jim Crow. The movie highlights the fact that Tolson did not simply talk the talk, he walked the walk and the movie touches on Tolson organizing with sharecroppers and the danger involved.

We met other characters. There is Henry Heights, slick, evasive, a master of rebuttal who was thought to have become a preacher, if he ever gave up his drinking.

Much of the movie centers on the deeply moving and provocative relationship between James Farmer Jr. (later founder of the Congress of Racial Equality) and his father, James Farmer Sr., masterfully played by Forest Whitaker. The father is dean of the college, the first Black from Texas to receive a Ph.D. and only the 25th American Black to earn one at all. Farmer walked to Boston from Texas to pursue his dream of studying at the University. In the movie, the younger Farmer is the 14 year old prodigy, sharp, but at first number four on the team. He struggles with issues of justice, the expectations of his father and questions of adolescence all mixed up together.

The main plot traces the team’s rise to national prominence and in the movie finishes with a powerful showdown at Harvard, only the second white college to invite Wiley for a debate, the other being Oklahoma City University. Washington and Winfrey take creative license and tell the story of 15 years of competition as one great season culminating with the debate at Harvard. In fact, the debate for the national championship was held in 1935 against the University of Southern California.(USC). Wiley won. The movie tells the story of the initial season as the exploits of a team of four, three men (one kid, if you count Farmer) and one woman. In fact, several women function as part of the teams over the years, but only in the later seasons.

Needless to say, I recommend the movie.

I close with two reflections. First, I am struck by the network of Methodist schools and how doors were open in those institutions, however slightly. The first debate with a white team happened (out in the country) but with the team from Oklahoma City University, a venerable Methodist institution. USC was started as a Methodist institution, only becoming private in 1952. Additionally, there is the mention of Boston University, who over the years trained much of the leadership for the civil rights movement including MLK. In our day, analogously BU has been particular open to the GLBTQ community. I remain grateful for our Methodist schools and seminaries.

My second point, and I will come back to this in time, has to do with the fact of putting debate into perspective. One writer is quoted saying that “action removes the doubt that theory can never solve.” Scherman tells one story that is not picked up by the movie script. He quotes Farmer.

“Every evening in the men’s dormitory at Wiley,” say Farmer, “there were the usual bull sessions. One night, the subject of segregation came up. I took the floor. I must have spoken fro twenty minutes, and in that little speech I destroyed segregation. I killed it, buried it, and delivered its epitaph. I was very proud of myself. Couldn’t wait to tell Tolson. A few evenings later L was over at his house. I said, You would have been very proud of your debater,” and I told him how I’d taken the floor and killed segregation, reduced it to ashes and buried the corpse, mindless of the mixed metaphor. Tolson smiled and said, “I see, Farmer.” He said, “I hear there’s a good movie downtown.”

“Yes I saw it.”

“You saw it? Where did you see it?”

“At the Paramount” That’s the only theatre in town.

“How did you like it?”

“Oh it was a great movie.”

“He said to me, ‘Now let me get this straight On Thursday night in your bull session, you tore segregation to bits. Then on Saturday afternoon in the pitiless glare of the sun, you walked downtown in Marshall Texas to the Paramount Theatre, went around to the side entrance, climbed the back stairs and sat up in the buzzards’ roost. Am I correct?”


“And you watched the movie. Not only that, you enjoyed it! You had killed segregation two days before. And now, you not only allowed yourself to be segregated, but paid your father’s hard earned money for the privilege. And you enjoyed it?”

Debating can certainly clarify the issues, but a time finally comes for action about what is clear. In 1941 Farmer founded CORE and in 1961, Farmer led the first Freedom Riders through the South.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s