The force of Melvin Tolson’s personality was such that he left others with indelible memories. Those vivid impressions, captured in the voices of oral history more than thirty years ago, shaped my own enduring image of the brilliant teacher and poet.
Now Melvin Tolson lives again through Denzel Washington’s powerful new movie, The Great Debaters. Although history from Hollywood inevitably interweaves fact and fiction, this film introduces theater audiences to a remarkable African American whose influence was far greater than his fame.
For Black History Month, Humanities Texas presents three online features on Melvin Tolson. In "Wiley College's Great Debaters," Marshall historian Gail Beil describes the Wiley College debate program and its triumphant 1935 team, upon which the movie was based. Roland C. Hayes, director of the African American Cultural Center at Austin Community College, shares his memories of Tolson as a professor at Langston University in "Melvin B. Tolson." The third segment, excerpts of a 1986 conversation, offers a lively portrait of Tolson in the resonant voice of another former student, the late civil rights leader James Farmer.
What was Melvin Tolson like? Being in his presence, one of my interviewees remembered, was like being in the same room with an enormous diamond that flashed as it turned. "He just scintillated. . . . He was clever, profound, mawkish, everything." After grabbing an audience in the first thirty seconds, the source continued, "Tolson could have them roaring with laughter in five minutes, just eating out of his hand, and crying in another fifteen minutes."
Like any great teacher, Melvin Tolson used his extraordinary power not merely to inform, but also to inspire. Through withering satire and logic, he exposed the injustice of the South's racial caste system and empowered his students to challenge it. "He stretched the minds of all whose minds would be stretched," recalled James Farmer, who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Heman Sweatt, another former student, confided that Tolson was a "tremendous influence" in shaping his civil rights consciousness. When Sweatt filed his landmark lawsuit to desegregate the University of Texas law school, his mentor took credit for having contributed to the plaintiff's "contamination."
Other civil rights activists emerged from Tolson's classroom. W. Astor Kirk, who would recall how Tolson aroused a social pride and awakening in all of his students, applied pressure on The University of Texas's graduate school while the Sweatt litigation was underway. Hobart Jarrett, one of Tolson's star debaters, later became a central figure in the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins. Zephyr Wright's student days at Wiley College in Tolson's classroom gave her, as she told me, "a different outlook on life altogether." She became a family cook rather than an activist, but her stoic dignity in the face of racial discrimination would profoundly influence her employer, Lyndon Johnson.
Tolson's students drew inspiration not only from his dynamic presence, his compelling logic, and the courageous example he provided, but also from his gift of the humanities. He introduced Farmer to Henry David Thoreau's concept of civil disobedience, the principle that later led to CORE's strategy of nonviolent direct action. In sharing this rich endowment with generations of African Americans, he gave them a vital resource with which to confront adversity.