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Room for Debate

On a cold night at the end of March, Woolsey Hall is packed.  In the rotunda of one of Yale’s oldest and most storied buildings stands a menagerie of young children with their teachers and parents, clusters of college students, and a few scattered older adults waiting to go in.  They are mostly well-dressed—the men in suits, some women in fancy hats— and they are mostly black.  They had come, according to 2006 Democratic senatorial candidate, Honorary Chair of the debate, and tonight’s guest speaker, Ned Lamont, from “Baltimore to Boston,” from Washington, D.C., from Bridgeport and Hartford and New Haven.  And they are here to witness The Great Debate between Yale and Howard University, an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The event was inspired in part by the 2007 film “The Great Debaters” and the book on which it was based, which tell the story of the all-black Wiley College intercollegiate debate team, and culminate with the group defeating debate-giant Harvard. Although fictional, the film took its inspiration from the elite Wiley debate team that out-argued other squads from around the country before defeating University of Southern California, the then-reigning national debate champion, in 1935. The school’s ability to compete successfully against its better-funded, largely white competitors forced a national audience to recognize an equality between races that college’s standards for admission at that time did not.  Moreover, the debate community at Wiley became incubator for future civil rights leaders.   It was here, on the debate team, that James L. Famer learned the art of oration, and that Melvin B. Tolson, Jr. honed his skills as a speaker, organizer, and writer.

Back in Woolsey, the contest begins with a prayer. The jazz music playing over the speakers fades,  and Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler  takes the stage, “[to be] inflamed with passion… [to] change, inspire, excite, and resolve.”  Shades, a Yale a capella group, performs “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” a James Weldon Johnson song often called the “Black National Anthem.”

Like prayer and song, debating is steeped in tradition. “Debating has been an integral facet of Howard’s history,” says Angela Porter, one of the school’s debaters.  More generally, explains Janette L. Dates, dean of the college’s John H. Johnson School of Communications, it is a “commemorative activity that is historic and symbolic.” Dates is alluding to the idea of “the spoken word,” a power of rhetoric and speech that “is so important to our community” as a means to reform.

It is apropos, then, that the debate is being held in the American Parliamentary Style, which, as moderator and director of the NAACP Washington Bureau Hillary Shelton explained, is rooted in the deliberations that take place in the British House of Commons and are judged on the ability of the debaters to “effectuate change” through persuasive speech.  To this end, the resolutions chosen—that access to high-quality education, including college, should be a constitutional right for all Americans, and that financial institutions that targeted minorities with predatory lending practices be excluded from the bailout package— address contemporary issues and concerns in much the same way as The Great Debaters argued about unemployment benefits in the depression and admissions reform at public universities.  Even by Parliamentary Debate standards, says Yale Debater Sabrina Ali ES ’11, this event has much more of a connection to the “real world” than the average debate.  According to Ali, who is also the Treasurer of the Yale Debate Association, this link to activism and reform was amplified by the addition of an audience of 2,700.  Usually, she explained, the debate room has only a few college students and a professional judge taking notes.


Unlike the famed USC-Wiley showdown, there are no winners in the Woolsey debate, and the lines separating white from black universities are less clear than they were in the 1930s. Esdaile spoke of the rich tradition of debate at both Ivy League schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  Even the juxtaposition of the two schools was emblematic. “We often hold Ivy Leagues in such high regard,” said James Rawlings, president of the New Haven branch of the NAACP, but the debate showed that “historically black schools could compete on the same stage,” a lesson he thought was of particular import to the “young people of Greater New Haven.”

But some division still exists. Yale’s debate team has a storied tradition of excellence, winning the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s Team of the Year award four times in past ten years.  They speak with precision, control, and speed. Although Howard also has a tradition of debate that dates back to the early twentieth century—it is, according to Dates, arguably the oldest extracurricular activity at the school—the exhibition debate was a debut for the Howard team, who were, for the first time in the school’s history, debating in the Parliamentary style.

And for many on the Howard team, it was their first time debating at all.  Even though the team, unlike the Yale Debate Association, is institutionally grounded and coached by members of the faculty, a lack of funds has put debating at Howard on hold for the past few years. While the activity was resurrected this year at Howard (“the ‘Great Debate’ at Yale was really our springboard,” says Porter), it remains  “one of the few Historically Black Colleges & Universities that competes in forensic intercollegiate competitions” according to a press release on the school’s website. Meanwhile, debate is ubiquitous in the Ivy League.

Differences between the teams clearly manifested themselves during the debate as well. While the Yale debaters largely sidestepped the issue of race in their arguments, the Howard team made it the crux of theirs.

Ali describes Yale’s argument for the guarantee of high quality education—full citizenship, defined as social, civil, and political equality based on equal access to high quality education—as one of “universal appeal.”  Although Ali and her partner James Luccarelli BR’ 10 noted that there is a racial (and economic) disparity in access to education, they implied, at least initially, that the strongest barrier to full citizenship was based on the ability to attain an education.

The Howard team, however, brought race into the debate from the start. Allen Reynolds ’11 opens by asserting, “Education is not the only thing that leads to equality,” noting systematic discrimination in hiring and lending practices.  The team went on to question whether the government could be trusted to define “high quality”; could citizens opt out and educate their children outside the public system?  “What if the public school does not teach black history?” asked Porter.  Both Reynolds and Porter emphasized that quality is in the eyes of the beholder.  “Just look at Yale and Howard,” Reynolds said. “Yale might be higher in the rankings [but, perhaps] it’s because rankers prefer a ‘Eurocentric over Afrocentric’ perspective.” The audience erupted into applause.

Ali had two responses and both dismissed race. Quoting Howard’s conjecture that “Education doesn’t guarantee equality,” she responded, “Well, it certainly helps.” As for the college rankings, she said “we might not agree on whether Yale or Howard is better” but “we can certainly agree that Yale or Howard is better than no access at all.”

In the second debate on predatory lending, Howard constructed its argument around the history of United States. “The country was built on the backs of the people who have been oppressed,” said Howard’s Jared Smith, citing the treatment of Native Americans and slaves. He argued that the government’s refusal to bail out companies that “bamboozled” certain groups and engaged in systematic discrimination would send a message that the nation would no longer tolerate oppression, even if the bailout would be practical. Yale, however, went for pragmatism. They agreed that what the banks did was reprehensible and even believed that the officials responsible be punished directly. But not bailing out the banks, said Stephen Kryger,  SC ’10, would “hurt the most vulnerable,” who were the ones most likely to have suffered in the first place. Past injustice, in essence, should remain a part of the nation’s sordid history; what mattered was the future.

In The Great Debaters, the fictionalized Wiley and Harvard teams use parallel tactics arguing about the role of civil disobedience as a “moral weapon.”  The Harvard team claims that “nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral no matter what name we give it,” noting that chaos ensues when laws are broken. The Wiley team, led by James L. Farmer (whose real-life self became one of the leaders of the civil rights movement after attending the school) responds, “In Texas, they lynch negroes.”  He cites an incident earlier in the film where the team was chased by a lynch mob on their way to a debate.  “The law did nothing,” Farmer explains. “There is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South.”  Wiley wins.


The racial landscape of the United States has changed significantly since the 1930s. During that era, especially in the South, debate was one of few ways blacks could enter, even temporarily, into white society, however temporarily.  Debate, speech and oration had long been a way for blacks to be heard, especially as whites closed other avenues for change.  As Farmer made his speech, the Costigan-Wagner Bill, a second attempt at anti-lynching reform, died in Congress.  In the coming years, Marion Anderson would sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being denied Constitution Hall, and Martin Luther King Jr. would march on Washington and speak to a crowd of thousands when Congress failed to bring a meaningful end to segregation.  In the film, the debate coach spends his spare time organizing migrant workers through secret speeches in barns.  While there have been great speakers in white American history, the speeches we remember—the Webster-Hayne debates, Lincoln’s debates against Stephen Douglass, his inaugural speeches, Roosevelt’s first inaugural and Kennedy’s orations—are ones that took place in the confines of government.  The black oratory tradition is one of challenging the norms.  It is one of working to change a poisonous system from the outside when it cannot be changed from within.


In his opening remarks at the Centennial events, Provost Peter Salovey pointed out perhaps the most obvious difference between race relations in America’s past and present.  After mentioning his pride that both participants in the 2004 Presidential debates, Bush and Kerry, had been members of the Yale Debate Team, he said “my only regret is that [Yale cannot boast the] much greater debater, Barack Obama” in the White House.  Although neither Congress nor the courts yet reflect the demographics of the nation at large, the government no longer seems completely inaccessible to minorities.

Neither does Yale.  Like its Ivy League counterparts,  the University is no longer an all-white insitution.  Ali points to the diversity of the Yale debate team to “disprove that Yale [is] a white bastion.”  The juxtaposition of an HCBU with an Ivy League school seems slightly skewed; the mere fact that Eisdale felt the need to define the acronym shows how things have changed.  But why, then, did the 2009 debate feel so similar to the one depicted in film?

Ali suggests the differing use of race comes from the different philosophy of the two schools.  “[For Howard] race is an important, defining characteristic.”  There is, perhaps, too much tradition, and too much history for race to stop playing a part.  One hundred years ago, the NAACP was born out of race riots in Springfield, Illinois, after the “spread of lawless attacks upon the Negro, North, South and West” and rampant disenfranchisement as Oswald Garrison Villard wrote in The Call. The document was an appeal to civil rights activists to join in a national conference to end the “silence which under these conditions meant tacit approval.”  The issues the NAACP is engaged in today—the criminal justice system, voting rights and redistricting, and fair housing, lending, and hiring— are more nuanced and less clearly connected with issues of race.  But perhaps it is now, when the decisions to be made are less clear-cut, that the voice tradition, of history, and of race is most necessary.  Without this voice, there can be no debate.

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