Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

This year’s NAACP 39th Image Award ceremony named the movie “The Great Debaters” as the best film of 2007. In addition, acting prizes went to its stars Denzel Washington, Jurnee Smollett and teenager Denzel Whitaker. “The Great Debaters” celebrates the values that made the Civil Rights Movement powerful. The movie reminds all Americans of the caliber of people who led the early fight for civil rights. Their courage, commitment to excellence, and refusal to be denied are fundamental marks of greatness. The NAACP is to be commended for recognizing the power of this movie.

My hope is that this film will help call the next generation of civil rights activists back to the core values that made them so influential and transformative to our nation. Previous NAACP Image Awards, on the other hand, have often celebrated people who simply have made commercial successes in the entertainment industry.

This inspiring film told the story of a black debate team in the 1930s. The true story chronicled a year in the life of students from Wiley College in Texas. These students and their coach overcame great odds to defeat the all-white, Harvard University debate team at the Harvard campus. The movie painted a clear picture of race relations in that period. In addition, it also gave a biographical look into what it took for blacks to excel in the pre-civil rights South.

The movie had three endearing qualities. First, it had a great plot. Second it shared an important history lesson, as it entertained. Third, the movie spotlighted several characters that should serve as role models for both young and old people of every race. I was intrigued that the most touching role model was Dr. James Farmer, Jr. In real life, the 14-year old Farmer starred on his college debate team. The film chronicles how one year’s competition and the civil rights struggles of his day left an indelible imprint upon Farmer. The end of the movie reveals that he later became the founder of CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) which now operates in five nations in addition to the U.S.

Although CORE was not the first civil rights organization or the largest, it has consistently raised a moral and conservative banner. In this way CORE remains a model for other civil rights groups to follow. In addition to CORE and the NAACP, there have been other organizations that have made ongoing contributions to the battle for African-American civil rights. The Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) are two additional organizations that come to mind.

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.

Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.