Nearly 80 years after Wiley College students traveled to Los Angeles to debate their peers from USC, the roles were reversed, but the result was the same.
A standing-room only crowd of approximately 700 people was captivated by a debate of the necessity of civil disobedience. Marshall Mayor Chris D. Paddie recognized the special evening with a proclamation recognizing the day as “University of Southern California and Wiley College Debate Teams Day.” The original debate was groundbreaking because it was rare for students from a historically black college to compete against other programs. The 1935 debate was the foundation for the 2007 Harpo Films production, “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. The success of the film played an important role in making this reunion possible. Washington’s $1 million donation to Wiley College made it possible to revive its debate program. Today, both Wiley’s The Melvin B. Tolson/Denzel Washington Forensics Society and USC’s Trojan Debate Squad are nationally recognized debate programs. Faculty and students of the Trojan Debate Squad traveled to Marshall, Texas at the invitation of Wiley President Haywood L. Strickland and Director of Forensics Chris Medina. Medina noted that “77 years ago these two teams left the building as equals. Tonight, that is how they enter.” Anticipation had been building for days about the event, as Wiley alumni and guests traveled from around the country to attend. Guests included the Wiley Board of Trustees, Mayor Paddie, and Kansas State Senator David Haley. Interest was so great that the crowd filled the Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel and an overflow auditorium. Audiences from around the world also listened to the audio broadcast. Dr. Joseph L. Morale, Wiley College’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Services, presided over the event and opened the affair with an account from the 1935 USC Daily Trojan student newspaper article that chronicled the original debate.
He then recognized a special guest in the audience, Dr. Arthur Tolson, the son of the legendary Wiley professor and debate coach Dr. Melvin B. Tolson. Dr. Tolson and USC Director of Forensics Dr. Alan Nichols agreed to the original groundbreaking debate. The debate began with Cary Chavis, Wiley’s Debate Captain (Class of ’13, Education Major) offering a strong debate of the role of civil obedience throughout history, including most notably as an essential tactic of the Civil Rights Movement. USC offered an initial reply by Maria Mohammad (Class of ’12, Engineering major) cataloging the problems between modern efforts to utilize civil disobedience to achieve social change, from the Occupy Wall Street protests to efforts to block recent health care reform. Wiley’s Chad Mossman (Class of ’12, Business Major) provided a strong response and emphasized the importance of strong civil responses to injustices in modern times. USC’s Clara Purk (Class of ’14, International Relations and & Communication major) might have been the youngest student on stage, but captivated the crowd with a stirring defense of legal forms of civic dissent, such as those that stopped the recent internet privacy legislation and emphatic reminder that the successes of past struggles for social justice made it possible for all Americans to utilize institutional forms of dissent. Mohammad and Chavis returned to the stage for powerful rebuttals that left the crowd buzzing. USC Director of Debate and Forensics Dr. Gordon Stables captured the spirit of the night when he noted that everyone in attendance “won the debate” because they were treated to such a fantastic display of argumentation.
Before the evening concluded, the audience had one more reason to cheer when Dr. Stables invited the Wiley team back to Los Angeles for a future debate and Dr. Morale quickly accepted.