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

Editors Note;

This post was written about ten years ago. We are re-writing the headnotes to make a few basic points;

1) Oprah was a former debater in Chicago growing up.

2) Public Speaking and Debate defined her life and made it what it became.

3) Every speech and debate ass’n acknowledges that Oprah was an urban debater before the term was invented.

4) The only other role model remotely similar to her is Sonia Sotomayor, who debated at Cardinal Spellman HS in NYC in the very early 70s, and is now on the US Supreme Court.

5) Either of them would make a GREAT US President.

6) the details of The Great Debaters, in the end, dont actually matter. Oprah took artistic license with the film. She had Wiley debate Harvard instead of USC.

7). So what? The point of a a film is to dramatize, to create catharsis, emotional response. The film was a huge box office success, and if i was unretired from teaching and coaching debate, i’d show it not just to my students, but to ALL the students in the school.

8) the essential point of the film is that Wiley succeeded against all odds. not just the odds of debate, but the odds of racial prejudice.

9). Those debaters went on to make a HUGE difference in the lives of our rich nation’s country.

10). James Farmer, Jr. Esq. in particular, with Thurgood Marshall and other brave, courageous and fearless NAACP attorneys marched into into innumerable ALL WHITE courtrooms to logically, forcefully argue their cases, just as Wiley did, and win them, according to the rules.

The lesson here is that when your opponent is a racist or bigot, you can still win by arguing patiently the law and the facts, in the public fora, and in the debating fora, according to the rules, non-violently.

Wiley College teaches us we need not sink to the level of our oppressors.

And with that preface, the original blog;

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

http://www.mail-archive.com/edebate@www.ndtceda.com/msg03865.html

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

posted by ART KYRIAZIS, PHILLY/SOUTH JERSEY
HOME OF THE WORLD CHAMPION PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

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6 Comments

  1. Dr Kyriazis. Shame on you, I and other people with a brain will have checked the legitimacy of the films content, because the film drew me in and made me feel emotion, one that we obviously do not share, because the importance of the film allowed the use of a little Hollywood to bring it to the larger audience, to remind us of the events of the time, that is the value of it, not which team did they win against.
    Further if Harvard the educators of the great and the good did so much toward removing this disgusting discrimination why then did it takes so long for there to be chang. And surely that change came about more because of those black and white people who put their lives on the line to say how wrong it was, and still is.
    My comment, don’t be so petty, and think of the greater good this film brings about in educating us all.

  2. 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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