Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 6.5.08

Historic Debates
The story continues 
by Mary O’Brien

The other day a friend suggested I might like to see The Great Debaters, a 2007 film directed by Denzel Washington. My friend said it was based on the true story of the building of a debate team at a small, all-black college in Marshall, Texas which, according to the movie, defeated in 1935 the then-reigning national debate champions of Harvard.

I said I would like to see it, mentioning that my father-in-law, Bob O’Brien, had likewise taught at two small black colleges in the South during the 1930s. I said that in addition to being a professor, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law Helen, at that time a communist, were organizers with the Southern Farmers Tenant Union. This was one of the few unions in the 1930s with black and white membership. My parents-in-law would quickly slip away from social gatherings with their black friends whenever they were warned that police were coming. My father-in-law witnessed, after the fact, a lynching.

“Well,” my friend said, “I think you’ll be interested in this film.” He lent it to me, and I watched it, amazed.

In the film, Melvin Tolson, the African-American professor for the Wiley College debate team, becomes controversial when the community of Marshall, Texas, learns that by night the professor is an organizer with the Southern Farmers Tenant Union. He is correctly suspected of being a communist. At one point the debate team is traveling home from a debate and comes across a lynching, and they have to speed away to avoid the still-angry mob. The debate team’s youngest, 14 year-old member, provides the clinching argument in the stunning 1935 debate victory. 

At the end of the film, a brief postscript provides interesting historical information. The 14-year old debater was James Farmer, Jr., who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality. CORE organized the first student sit-ins and, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, organized Freedom Rides into the South. In these rides, blacks and whites sat next to each other on buses and in bus terminals, intentionally violating then-existing transportation segregation laws.

Samantha Brooke, the female member of the Wiley debate team, became a lawyer and was a participant in one of the first Freedom Rides. The debate team’s student captain eventually became a minister. The Wiley debate team remained undefeated for ten years. (Inexplicably, the film depicts something that was not true: The reigning debate champions defeated by the 1935 Wiley debate team were at University of Southern California, not Harvard.)


Of course, the history presented in The Great Debaters makes me wish I could ask my parents-in-law, Bob and Helen O’Brien, to tell more stories of their years with Le Moyne and Talledega College students, and with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. I can’t, though, because they both have died. 

Fortunately we all have, through the Web (e.g., Wikipedia) or our libraries, the opportunity to expand outwards from a history-based movie such as The Great Debaters

For instance, a quick (and sad) tour through the Wikipedia entry on lynchings documents that not only African-Americans, but also Italian-Americans, Chinese immigrants, white allies of minorities, East Indians, Native Americans, and Mexicans became victims of thousands of lynchings within the U.S. As a result of the civil rights movement, lynchings largely ended in the 1960s. 

The Wikipedia entry for Wiley debater James Farmer, Jr. reports that he eventually ran for Congress as a Republican in 1968, losing to Democrat Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Rep. Chisholm was then re-elected for 11 more terms, serving until she retired in 1982.

When I returned the debate film to my friend, a story he told me reminded me that the film’s story of courage continues: While hospitalized recently for his seizure and brain tumor, Sen. Ted Kennedy requested two films to view, the funny 2000 film, Best in Show, about pet dog shows … and a 2007 film, The Great Debaters. 

In the coming months, while Sen. Kennedy undertakes his personal challenge of brain cancer, we will all be witnesses to another historic debate between two of his Senate colleagues: Sen. John McCain and, thanks to the courage of people such as professor Tolson in a small black college in the east-Texas town of Marshall, Sen. Barack Obama.

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at