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The Great Debaters

April 1, 2008

To all those who asked, yes today is my birthday not an April Fool’s joke and thanks for all the good wishes which came in not to mention the cute April Fool from Shawn which I may deal with later in the week. True to form I spent most of said birthday on a plane returning from a great week in Hong Kong. I had a lot of work to do so avoided sleep attempting to do a fast time adjustment. That meant watching a lot of films, I need distraction to clear an email backlog! Sweeny Todd was a delight, Helen Bonham Carter taking on where she left off in portrayals of decadent evil from the last Harry Potter film.

However the most moving was The Great Debaters, in the art movie section and I strongly recommend it. It’s the story of Wiley College in Texas whose debating team took on the might of Harvard back in 1935. For a black team to even get there, let alone win was an achievement and in major part due to the drive of the radical poet, then teacher Melvin Tolson.

It reminded me of the discipline of formal debating which has been sadly lost in a generation that rewards sound bites and platitudes rather than researched argument and the arts of examined rhetoric. The politicians of today would not survive for a second if they had to hold an audience for an hour from the back of a train or lorry. The final debaters for Wiley College were Samantha Booke who went on to become a lawyer and took the first freedom ride to Alabama and James Farmer Jr who seven years later founded the Congress of Racial Equality. These are people of real gravitas, born from experience that I hope my children never have to face, or maybe not, learning to fight for things that matter is important. It is not a sentimental film, the lynching scene is distressing but necessary, the images of mob rule and the contrast between rural Texas and Harvard are brilliantly done but not over stated.

The debate with Harvard that concludes the film is on the legitimacy of civil dissent or breaking the rule of law. The final speech from Farmer is powerful to the point where any audience would be stunned to silence. I want to repeat the concluding line from that speech as todays message, and a reminder that there are more serious matters than birthdays and April fools: St Augustine said “an unjust law is no law at all”, which means I have a right, even a duty to resist, with violence or civil dissobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.

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