Debunking the Film “The Great Debaters”; Wiley Defeated USC, Not Harvard

There are actual records of college debate for the 1930s. And these show unmistakably as follows;

1) Wiley College won the national championship in the 1930s.
2) In so doing, they defeated USC, not Harvard.
3) The actual difficulty for Wiley was that they won the championship of a debate league that did not recognize their right to be champion, because they were an african-american university, and consequently they never properly received recognition or their award as national champions.
4) There was never any one on one match between Wiley College and Harvard University as depicted in the movie “The Great Debaters.” This is purely fictional and a conceit of the movie’s producer, Oprah Winfrey.

–art kyriazis

I previously blogged this fact on another website at

That prior blog appeared previously as follows

[eDebate] Wiley defeated USC not Harvard

Art Kyriazis
Tue, 18 Dec 2007 13:37:07 -0800

To Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Kittredge of NAUDL:

I am very happy, delighted indeed, that Oprah Winfrey, a former debater herself, has bankrolled and produced a film about the Wiley College Debate Team national championship of the 1930s.

However, the factual record is that Wiley College defeated the University of Southern California for the championship, and not Harvard University. The website of the film clearly states that the debate at Harvard and the championship round at Harvard is entirely fictional and a figment of the collective imaginations of the writers of the film and possibly Ms. Winfrey herself (beating USC wasn’t good enough? Wiley had to beat Harvard?).

As a Harvard Debate Alumnus, I am somewhat disturbed that the film fictionalizes in this manner. While I am certain that James Farmer Jr. et al. the Wiley debaters were outstanding, the notion that the Harvard Debate Team in 1935 or any other year would have been weaker than USC or Wiley is ridiculous. Harvard, along with Northwestern and Dartmouth, has won numerous NDT championships, and when they have lost, it has usually been on 3-2 panel decisions that were close or hard-fought.

More pertinently, the NAUDL website states flat out that Wiley College defeated Harvard for the debate championship in the 1930s. It actually simply repeats the fictive movie version of history as if it were truth, instead of carefully distinguishing that the actual winning round was Wiley v. USC, and that the movie version is fiction. For a trained group of debaters, this is an unforgivable error. NAUDL should be cautioned from making such a horrible error and then passing it on to their readership in such an awful fashion. This is the kind of sloppy thinking that debate, logic and philosophy are designed to prevent, not encourage. Perhaps the film version of the Great Debaters does not have a sufficiently large disclaimers on it as to the fictive nature of its events.

In any case, because Will Smith is not in it, it probably won’t be seen by that many people…

More generally, of all the universities in the nation, Harvard University was probably the one place in 1935 that was most actively working on civil rights. It was the alumni university of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the source of 90% of the cabinet members who served with FDR on the New Deal, and more importantly, the election of 1932 and the New Deal marked the demographic shift of african american voters away from the Republican party, to whom they had been loyal since the Civil War, to the Democratic Party, whom they now voted for due to economic and social reasons, and because FDR spoke to them and adopted policies which were pro-civil rights. The New Deal cabinet, influenced profoundly by Harvard ideas and Harvard theories, did more to advance African-Americans than any presidency before it in the past 75 years; and Harry Truman, FDR’s successor, finally did enact substantial Civil Rights reform as well as integrate the army, etc. Again, these were all ideas pressed from Harvard academics serving in the FDR cabinet.

Consequently, the enemy in 1935 wasn’t Harvard. It was the rest of the country, particularly the south and west. Were I filming this piece, I would have fictionalized it as follows; Ronald Reagan leads Eureka College into the quarters, Richard Nixon leads Whittier College into the semifinal round, and Wiley College defeats Reagan in the quarters, Nixon in the semis, and George Bush Senior of skull and bones and Yale University in the finals on their way to the national championshionship. See how much better this version of the film would have been? Wiley and James Farmer Jr. and Tollson defeat three archenemies of civil rights. We could even have altered the facts a little and make William Rehnquist Nixon’s debate partner at Whitter. That would have really been good fictional debate. They’re dead. You can defame them.

Dr. Arthur Kyriazis
molecular biologist and sometime debate coach




  1. The new great debate team has beaten usc and harvard and many others school. Look it up the revived team has won so many champships

    1. No, true. I helped found urban debate in Philly in the 1980s and 90s–along with Detroit & Atlanta–and obviously any team can beat any team. that doesnt change that the movie changed the facts, though.

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