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.
Interestingly CORE stands out because it has managed to approach the elimination of discrimination and hatred with a decidedly conservative political and moral approach. Dr. Farmer began the organization in 1942. This organization was up and running years before Dr. King came on the scene. CORE was part of a major grassroots movement that spread like wild fire across the nation.
Many remember CORE the most for their work in the Deep South during the summer of 1964. They led something called Freedom Summer. Working with the NAACP, The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups, CORE was able to establish 30 schools in Mississippi to help train black kids in basic academics. In addition, they created a new political party – the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Their party registered 80,000 voters and had a national voice in that year’s Democratic Convention through delegate Fannie Lou Hamer.
The Civil Rights Movement made major strides that summer, yet there was a terrible cost. Thirty-seven churches, 30 black homes and businesses were bombed or burned, and over 1,000 students were arrested. The most horrific aspect of the summer is that three of their workers were murdered - a black volunteer (James Chaney) and white volunteers (Andrew Goodman and Michael Swerner).
As the years have progressed CORE has not sought excessive entitlement programs. Its leaders have sought equality and opportunity for African Americans and people of African descent around the world.
Niger Innis, national spokesperson for CORE, says that, “bootstrap conservatism” is the philosophy of engagement that has permeated the way that CORE views the world. Their web site records that “CORE seeks to establish, in practice, the inalienable right for all people to determine their own destiny…. CORE feels that the most important fundamental freedom for all people is the right to govern themselves. Once this simple ideal is realized, other necessary freedoms will automatically follow.”
CORE believes that the final frontier for the Civil Rights Movement has to do with financial literacy and financial services offered to minorities. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has disproportionately impacted the black community. Further, traditional banking institutions have failed to reach out to hard-working minorities and their families. Something akin to the micro-financing phenomenon, which is occurring in third world nations, needs to occur in the U.S. Small, uncollateralized loans for households and businesses need to be developed. Underlying all of this must be intensive financial training that helps blacks and other minorities make the right financial choices.
Today CORE operates in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and the Caribbean, while maintaining their base in the United States.
For all the reasons outlined in this article, I hope that all the major civil rights organizations of our day will return to their roots and live out the values of “The Great Debaters.” If you have not seen this movie make it a point to do so soon. It’s worth the time. The NAACP got it right this time!
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.