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50th Anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech": The Wiley vs. SMU Debate

SMU to host debate on the subject of Martin Luther King's dream.

On August 28 the SMU debate team will host the Wiley College debate team to discuss the topic: Resolved: America is faltering on MLK’s dream in 2013. The debate will begin at 7 p.m. in room 241 of the Umphrey Lee building. This event is a 50-year anniversary commemoration of King’s dream as outlined in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given at the March on Washington in 1963. As part of our event, portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech will be read as well as a letter to the march participants from James Farmer Jr. that was also read at the event in 1963.

James Farmer Jr. is one of the "great debaters" who was born in Marshall, Texas, debated under coach Melvin Tolson at Wiley College and went on to become one of the most important civil rights leaders. Farmer was shaped by the debate process to become the great advocate he was, creating the Congress of Racial Equality and shaping key events like the Freedom Bus Rides through the South. Farmer represents an important Texas component to the civil rights struggle. He was scheduled to be the eighth of 16 speakers at the March on Washington in 1963. Unfortunately, Farmer was in jail in Louisiana at the time of the event, due to his involvement in civil rights protests in that state.

Farmer’s life was depicted in Denzel Washington’s 2007 film, “The Great Debaters.” The film documents the struggle of Wiley College debaters to overcome segregation and ultimately defeat the national champions of debate from a white college. Farmer was a principal member of this historic squad. Wiley College and SMU are both mentioned in the film; SMU had invited Wiley to come and debate in an effort to breach the racial divide, but the debate had to be cancelled. Beginning in the fall of 2008, both Wiley and SMU re-started their debate programs along with a unique relationship that celebrates their common heritage as Methodist schools and mutual believers in the civic importance of debate to transform lives and society. In 2009, SMU travelled to Wiley College for that school's first debate with a predominantly white college on its campus in school history. The historic debate focused on the recent inauguration of the first African American president a few days after President Obama was sworn into office. SMU completed its 1935 invitation to Wiley in February of 2009 when Wiley travelled to Dallas for debate about the possible closing of Guantanamo Bay.

Wiley and SMU continue to share a close relationship seeking to promote debate as a profound pedagogical and civic value. Several debates between the two schools have taken place. The August 28 debate is an important example of how current events and historical events can combine for an intelligent conversation pointing to a better future for all.

This event will be unique among national commemoration events by emphasizing the participation and significance of James Farmer Jr., who was among the earliest and most effective civil rights leaders. Farmer began his work toward segregation in the 1940s, successfully desegregating a restaurant in Chicago. SMU and Wiley believe that debate can transform the lives of individuals today in the same way that it transformed the young James Farmer and allowed him to promise his father upon graduation that he would “destroy segregation.” Farmer debated Malcom X on television, participated in major civil rights marches, spent time in jail, and advocated for decades in a non-violent manner for dramatic change.

For further information, contact: Ben Voth, director of debate at SMU,

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