RedState Celebrates Black History: Melvin B. Tolson and the Wiley College Debate Team

(AP Photo/courtesy Wiley College)

A RedState reader commented that instead of talking about Black History and activism, that I should simply focus on encouraging Blacks toward academic pursuits. My response to him was, How do you know I have not been doing that already?


I did not belabor it in the comments, but I will lead into this Black History Month post with this thought: been there, done that, and still doing it. Among my many influences are two Black young men whose future depended on their overcoming illiteracy. One was a football player who I tutored in his written and verbal presentation. Subsequently, his ability to navigate his course work increased, and so did his GPA. He graduated not only with prowess as an athlete, but intellectual prowess. The other young man I tutored could barely read. He was a freshman in high school, but reading at less than a fourth grade level. We did the paces with the classics: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, and other Black writers and intellectuals, to spark his imagination and inspire curiosity and deeper learning. After three months, he was reading above his grade level.

As I have said in previous Black History Month posts, just because the Left has co-opted certain terms, doesn’t mean we cannot take them back and restore their meaning. You cannot separate education from activism, and it is through helping young people expand academically that I have done some of my best activism.

Melvin B. Tolson understood this better than anyone. Not only was he an exceptional writer, poet, and academic, Tolson used his incredible talents to inspire, equip, and train thousands of young men and women to find, take back and keep their righteous minds, then to use that mind for the greater good and to live in freedom.


Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born on February 6, 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. Writer and Poet Langston Hughes, who was no intellectual slouch himself, declared Tolson to be “the most famous Negro Professor in the Southwest.”

In 1924, Tolson received his Bachelor of Arts from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter he accepted a position at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, as an English and Speech instructor. I spoke earlier of the football player I tutored who expanded his prowess not only on the football field, but academically and intellectually. When one attains knowledge and academic growth in life, it bleeds into and builds up the other areas of life. Tolson also served as the football coach and play director at Wiley. But I believe his most notable role at Wiley was as the speech and debate coach.

In 1935, Tolson was instrumental in taking Wiley’s speech and debate team to a National Championship over the University of Southern California (USC). As I said in the video, this was the Jim Crow South. At that time Black debate teams were in their infancy, and Tolson built one that not only defeated other Black debate teams, but an Anglo-Saxon one (watch the movie to understand this use).

The 2007 movie, The Great Debaters, covers that road to the historic championship win. They took dramatic liberties, compositing characters, and changing some facts. Instead of the Wiley debate team going up against USC, it went up against Harvard. Still, the moment captured is inspiring, rousing, and uplifting, not just for Blacks, but for all people.

What the movie also doesn’t cover is the fact that Tolson and Wiley College maintained a 10-year winning streak from 1929 to 1939.

Tolson never stopped finding, taking back, and keeping his own righteous mind. In 1930, Tolson stepped away for a time from teaching and coaching to go to New York and pursue his masters degree at Columbia University. In 1931, he returned to Wiley College, but still worked on the completion of his degree program. In 1940, Tolson received an MFA in English and Comparative Literature. Of course with his time in New York came the opportunity to rub shoulders with the giants of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Tolson interviewed these and other artists for his master’s thesis, and was inspired to write poetry that delved into the Black urban experience. Tolson’s poetry appeared in Black newspapers of the time, and in 1944, Tolson’s first book of poetry, Rendezvous with America, was published.

In 1947, Tolson moved on from Wiley to teach at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma. He was appointed the Poet Laureate of Liberia that same year, and published a second book of poetry in 1953 titled, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. From 1954-1960, Tolson served as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma, then went on to publish Harlem Gallery, another book of poetry in 1965.

On August 29, 1966, Melvin B. Tolson died undergoing a surgery to treat his cancer. He has left America with not only a legacy of academic wealth in his published works, but in the lives he activated as a professor and a coach.

The Great Debaters is one of my favorite movies, not only because of the fabulous performances (and direction) of Denzel Washington, and other standout talent like Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Gina Ravera, and Jurnee Smollett, but because it captures a victory over Jim Crow, segregation, and encapsulates an aspect of the Black experience as it pertained to academics and college life. Education from the lens of the Black experience is unique, and powerful.

Just ask Dr. Ben Carson.

As I said in the video and above, the story was altered for dramatic license. The original 1935 debate was against USC, which was the undefeated debate team in the country at that time. My alma mater has fallen on hard times of late, but it was once an illustrious institution and a worthy competitor.

Some of my favorite quotes come from this film, like, “We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do.”

Here are the moments that make this movie not only inspirational, insightful, and educational, but a unique lens into the Black experience.


 Anybody know who Willie Lynch was? Anybody? Raise your hand. No one? He was a vicious slave owner in the West Indies. The slave-masters in the colony of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves, so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. The word “lynching” came from his last name. His methods were very simple, but they were diabolical. Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind. I and every professor on this campus are here to help you find, take back and keep your righteous mind.


Melvin B. Tolson: Who is the judge?
Samantha, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., Hamilton Burgess: The judge is God.
Melvin B. Tolson: Why is he God?
Samantha, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., Hamilton Burgess: Because he decides who wins or loses. Not my opponent.
Melvin B. Tolson: Who is your opponent?
Samantha, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., Hamilton Burgess: He does not exist.
Melvin B. Tolson: Why does he not exist?
Samantha, Henry Lowe, James Farmer Jr., Hamilton Burgess: Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak!

In the triumphant moment of the debate between the Wiley College debate team and the Harvard University one, the character of James Farmer, Jr. uses in his final argument a St. Augustine quote: “An unjust law, is no law at all.” I have used this myself in my advocacy against AB5, which stripped independent contractors in California of their ability to work as they chose, and the PRO Act, which is still a threat to independent professionals nationwide.


Beautifully acted by Denzel Whittaker as James Farmer, Jr., the character renders this powerful speech with depth and gravity.

In Texas they lynch Negroes. My teammates and I saw a man strung up by his neck and set on fire. We drove through a lynch mob, pressed our faces against the floorboard. I looked at my teammates. I saw the fear in their eyes and, worse, the shame. What was this Negro’s crime that he should be hung without trial in a dark forest filled with fog. Was he a thief? Was he a killer? Or just a Negro? Was he a sharecropper? A preacher? Were his children waiting up for him? And who are we to just lie there and do nothing. No matter what he did, the mob was the criminal. But the law did nothing. Just left us wondering, “Why?” My opponent says nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. But there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow south. Not when Negroes are denied housing. Turned away from schools, hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St Augustine said, “An unjust law in no law at all.’ Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.

I have only scratched the surface here. If you enjoy inspiring movies, go rent The Great Debaters. Definitely go read more on Melvin B. Tolson and his brand of academic activism. If you love poetry, go buy one of his books and see how he contributed to the literary landscape of America.

To quote another favorite fictional character: Learn things.


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