Jan 7, 2008
The Great Debaters, a movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is currently playing in theaters. The film was produced by Oprah Winfrey, and also stars Forrest Whitaker.
The film, based on a true story, provides a realistic picture of racism under Jim Crow in the South during the 1930s and the beginnings of the black movement to oppose it. Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a professor and debate coach at Wiley College, a black school in Marshall, Texas. Tolson selects four young students for the debate team and demands the best from them. One of the students is a young James Farmer, Jr., who went on in real life to organize the Congress of Racial Equality. Whitaker plays his father, James Farmer, Sr., a minister and the school president.
The movie dramatically portrays the violence and ever present humiliation of life under Jim Crow. When Farmer, Sr. accidentally hits a pig with his car during a family outing, white farmers humiliate him in front of his family, making him apologize and pay an exorbitant price to reimburse them for the pig. Later, on their way to a debate against another college, Tolson and the students stumble upon a night time lynching and are lucky to escape from the racist mob.
The film also offers a glimpse of the Communist Party's organizing efforts in the South during that period. James Farmer, Jr. accidentally discovers one night that Tolson, besides teaching and coaching the debate team, is also an organizer for the sharecroppers' union. The Communist Party was a moving force in the Southern Tenants Farmers' Union in the 1930s. When Tolson is later arrested for being involved in Communist activities, the sharecroppers march to town and force the sheriff to release him. One of the students, under pressure from his family, quits the debate team when Tolson refuses to deny his political ties.
The debate team gains attention through its victories in competition and is invited to debate at Harvard (in the film). In reality, it was the University of Southern California. The topic chosen for the debate is the morality of civil disobedience versus the rule of law. In defense of civil disobedience, James Farmer, Jr. warns a national audience listening over the radio, " ... I have a right, even a duty to resist with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter."
For decades, black organizations did choose civil disobedience to break down Jim Crow. But the laws that relegated the black population to an inferior status were not thrown out until people went massively into the streets, meeting violence with violence. Only after black people in Birmingham stood up in great numbers to Bull Connor's dogs and fire hoses, only after people went into the streets in places like Jackson, Mississippi, Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington and hundreds of other cities, did the black movement free itself from the degradation of Jim Crow and force the state apparatus – from the lowliest Southern sheriff on up to the White House – to recognize their demands.
The Great Debaters gives a sense of the terror the black population faced in trying to break down Jim Crow and the courage of people who resisted. It is well worth seeing.