''The Great Debaters'' and the Question of Historical Fact

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Dear Editor,

I am afraid that, as an historian, I must respectfully disagree with some of your praise for The Great Debaters. Although I congratulate Winfrey and Washington for bringing the story of a authentic hero such as Melvin Tolson to the attention of the general public, I still must object – strongly – to their “improvements.”

There is a universe of difference – mental, moral, spiritual, and ethical – between defeating a USC debate team (my alma mater, incidentally) in Bovard Auditorium and vanquishing Harvard in Sanders Theatre – the same difference that would hold if the Wiley College football team had actually beaten the Crimson in Harvard Stadium while the film showed them beating the Trojans in the Coliseum.

But the real problem is the question of being true to historical fact. I have no doubt that racists will latch on to the rather cheap melodramatic substitution of Harvard for USC in order to attack the veracity of the movie’s portrait of Jim Crow.

A similar case arose with Anne Frank’s diary. Because Anne’s father removed some of her most intimate entries dealing with sexual matters, the Holocaust deniers declared that the entire diary was a fraud, and a team of scholars had to waste everybody’s time and money performing an exhaustive inquest in order to prove the reality of the diary. So it is important to get the facts right.

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