Teams from Wiley College and the University of Southern California will have a rematch Friday of the memorable 1935 debate that saw the small, historically black school prevail over the nationally known, mostly white powerhouse.
The exhibition will be held at Wiley in the small town of Marshall, near Texas' border with Louisiana. The 1935 debate at USC took place when the nation was heavily segregated and helped inspire "The Great Debaters," a 2007 movie starring Denzel Washington. The movie climaxes with a fictional debate against Harvard that was modeled on the real match in California.
"Before the civil rights movement, before Dr. King, Malcolm X, before Rosa Parks, it was Wiley and USC: This little bitty African-American school and this ... predominantly Caucasian school that came together in 1935 when things were still racist in America," said Cary Chavis, Wiley's debate captain, adding that with the event, the two schools "stood firm that racial tension had nothing on the power of speech."
Wiley's teams traveled the nation throughout the 1930s under the leadership of noted poet Melvin B. Tolson, accumulating an impressive string of victories against black and white opponents. Tolson's teams included several students who went on to distinguish themselves, including James Farmer Jr., the civil rights leader who formed the Congress of Racial Equality.
Those participating in Friday's debate say it's a chance to celebrate the connection between the two schools. Two students from each school will face off in a competition that combines features of the two different debate styles practiced by the schools.
"I think it's an incredible opportunity for the two teams to get together once again," said Chris Medina, Wiley's director of forensics. "We owe a debt of gratitude to USC for being ground-breakers in allowing us, an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), to really, at that point, achieve legitimacy. They were one of the few white colleges that would debate with us."
Though experts say there wasn't a structure for a national debate championship until the late 1940s, USC was known as a nationally competitive debate team, said Gordon Stables, USC's director of debate and forensics. And Wiley debaters referred to USC as national champions.
News coverage of the debate shows it attracted much attention. It's a debate that seems to have also stood out in Tolson's mind. In the journal of the debate society Pi Kappa Delta, he described the excitement surrounding the event, which took place while Wiley was "on an interracial goodwill tour covering 5,000 miles," and noted that 2,000 people attended.
Stables said that although there's no official record, accounts from the time have it as a win for Wiley. The winning team could have been determined by audience applause or judges, he said.
"I've never heard anyone contest that Wiley wasn't the better team in that competition," Stables said.
Wiley had ceased to have a debate team by the time "The Great Debaters" rekindled interest in its legacy. With the help of donations that included $1 million from Washington, the school resurrected its debate team in 2008.
Medina said "The Great Debaters" legacy is very much present in the minds of students on the team.
"They really have a sense of history and carrying on of the history of the school," Medina said. "They take it very personally and they take it to heart and really work hard in order to continue that legacy of excellence."
Wiley, a primarily liberal arts college founded in 1873, has seen its enrollment grow since the release of the movie, from 520 a decade ago to 1,356 this school year, said Joseph Morale, Wiley's vice president for student affairs and enrollment services.
Morale expects about 3,000 people to attend Friday's rematch, filling the site of the debate and a room in an adjacent building where the event will be simulcast.