Great Debaters: HBCU’s come together for national speech and debate league championship

Black youth "Great Debaters" are still speaking truth to power.

Majeedah Wesley, Allen Sams of Texas Southern University debate with Beatrice Beaubrun, Jordan Thomas during the kickoff of a new national HBCU forensics league. (Wiley College)

When “The Great Debaters” (2007) hit movie theaters ten years ago, it captivated audiences with the power of young black people speaking their minds.

The true inspiration for the movie, Wiley College‘s debate team, still stands today, working to be a voice for the voiceless and to strengthen its legacy.

Wiley College recently participated in the first of its kind HBCU Debate League National Championship Tournament in partnership Charles Koch Foundation. The three-day event brought hundreds of the brightest students and leaders to Marshall, TX to showcase the immeasurable value of civil discourse.

Students tackled hot button issues such as: criminal justice reform, ethical leadership, and other social justice issues.  Some of the HBCU’s which participated included: Howard University, Hampton UniversityNorth Carolina A&T State UniversityTexas Southern University and Bethune-Cookman University.

Even Academy Award-winning actor, Denzel Washington, was honored at the event for supporting HBCUs and the legacy of Wiley’s debate team.  He donated $1 million dollars back in 2007 to revive the debate team and pledged another $1 million dollar gift during the awards ceremony.

Ten years after the release of the movie "The Great Debaters," a film that led to the revival of the forensics program at Wiley College, the movie's director and star, two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, was honored by the school for his contributions toward raising awareness around the world about the value of debate education.Washington was recognized Saturday night during the awards ceremony for the nation's first Historically Black Colleges and Universities Speech and Debate Championship Tournament, which was held over three days at the College.After a standing ovation for Mr. Washington at the event, he was joined on stage by Bob Eisele storywriter and scriptwriter for "The Great Debaters" and Jeff Poro, storywriter for the "The Great Debaters," who were also recognized for their work.Washington was also one of the three inductees into the newly formed HBCU Forensics Hall of Fame during the awards ceremony. Other inductees were Wiley giant, Professor Melvin B. Tolson, posthumously, and Thomas F. Freeman, the legendary and longest- serving speech and debate coach, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., trained Barbara Jordan, and also trained Denzel Washington for his role in "The Great Debaters.""The Great Debaters" chronicles the history of Wiley's debate teams in the early to mid-1900s under the mentoring and coaching of Tolson. After the film's release, Washington made a $1 million gift to Wiley to fund the re-launching of the College's debate program.Since the rebirth of the program, which is officially known as the Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society, the team has earned more than 3,000 awards and has twice won the Overall Sweepstakes Championship and the Individual Events Sweepstakes Championship of the Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament, a prestigious debate competition that Tolson's teams were not allowed to take part in.Last fall, Wiley College formed the HBCU Speech and Debate League thanks to a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.In video, Denzel Washington is pictured with Dr. Haywood L. Strickland, President and CEO of Wiley College; Christopher Medina, Director of Forensics at Wiley College; and Wiley College alumnus and "Great Debaters" alumnus Austin Ashford.

Posted by Wiley College on Sunday, January 28, 2018

According to Christopher Medina, Wiley College’s Head Speech and Debate Coach, in the 1930s, there were more than 100 HBCU teams. Currently, there are less than a dozen active debate teams on HBCU campuses.

Speech and debate helps cultivate the voices of the future leaders and politicians of America, further highlighting why it cannot become a dying art form amongst African American and other students of color.

Wiley’s debate coach, Chris Medina, and debate team member, Hailey Byler, spoke with theGrio about the tournament, the importance of debating and much more.

TheGrio: Why do you feel it is important to maintain debate teams at HBCUs?

Medina – Speech and debate enhances so many skills that students need for the future and to give them advantage once they graduate. It improves critical thinking skills, communication, reading, writing skills and all the skills students need to help them in the future.

Imparting these skills on HBCU students provide another reason why HBCU’s are relevant in our society.

TheGrio: In the current state of society how important is to maintain a healthy platform for freedom of expression?

Medina – Freedom of expression is paramount without it we truly have no freedoms. We cannot check our government, our society if we cannot call attention to those things in our society that need to be fixed. During the Civil Rights Movement, if people didn’t speak out we wouldn’t be where we are in terms of furthering race relations.

Byler – As a woman of color it is extremely important to know the tools of articulation. Speech and debate gives us the foundation to be able to tell our stories, communicate, and advocate for something bigger than the individual, the culture. Now is the most important time to use these skills.

TheGrio: In your opinion, how does speech and debate directly impact politics?

Byler – We are the future, we are the voice of our generation and it is starts now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was marching when he was in his 20’s as well as Malcolm X. It is our time. We are the ones that can make the most change.

Medina – Speech and debate teaches students to communicate in a civilized manner. Civil discourse is something that is being lost within our society. We are becoming so entrenched with our own ideological silos. Speech and debate teaches students how to analyze arguments from different perspectives. It allows us to break free from those ideological silos and communicate it in a way that is effective, but yet it is still civilized so we don’t have to resort to violence.

“Civil discourse is something that is being lost within our society. We are becoming so entrenched with our own ideological silos.”

TheGrio: Describe the experience debating traditional universities.

Medina – The old adage you have to work twice as hard for half as much is definitely real in the speech and debate world unfortunately. My students regularly face discrimination judges on ballots will note things about race rather than argument, based on race rather than performance.

That is a reality our students face. They are fighting against. If more students compete (at HBCU) we become a laboratory to perform on a broader circuit, a national level. In White spaces that were not created for them.   

Byler– Outside of my HBCU, I know who I am as a person, as a Black woman. My teammates and I were are going to advocate and fight for our people.

TheGrio: How does speech and debate breed new leaders?

Medina – I tell my students all the time that power comes from this activity. Sixty percent of Congress comes from this activity. Heads of state, heads of media, those who have power in our society comes from this activity and so it is actually important. This is where networks begin. This activity saved my life and 80 to 90 percent of the students who participate in this activity contribute this activity to saving their lives because it provides students with a family and demonstrates to students they have abilities they may not have thought were valuable. This activity shows students their value and their worth.

Byler – Your voice is needed. We need you. Your people need you. This activity will help strengthen your voice.

Chalise Macklin is writer and producer who has contributed to theGrio, Black Enterprise and Kontrol Magazine. She is an adjunct professor at Arkansas State University.