APRIL 1, 1935
Before an integrated audience of 2,000, the “Great Debaters” of historically Black Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, defeated the reigning national champion, the University of Southern California. The victory meant a defeat for scientific racism, which pervaded the day.
Professor Melvin B. Tolson organized the first debate team at the college in 1924 and began challenging the first White teams six years later. As the “Great Debaters” took on all comers across the nation, Tolson saw these debates as a way to improve race relations.
“In the South,” he said, “I have seen ex-slaves shaking hands with the grandsons of the masters after the debate.”
His teams over the decade saw unparalleled success, reportedly losing only one time. The experiences became a great training ground for the debaters. Henrietta Bell Wells, the first female member of the debate team, became a prominent poet. James Farmer Jr. joined the team when he was only 14 and went on to become one of the nation’s most important civil rights leaders, heading the Congress of Racial Equality, which sent Freedom Riders across the South in 1961 to challenge segregation on interstate buses. The Freedom Riders were met by violence in Alabama and arrested in Mississippi. Farmer was among those arrested.
A year before his death in 1999, Farmer received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2007, he and others were depicted in the film, The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington. After the movie, Washington donated $1 million for Wiley College to resurrect its debate team.
In 2014, Wiley won the national championship — the championship the college had been barred from in 1935.