ProCon.org and Reagan Library Celebrate Black History Month with The Great Debaters

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The Great Debaters
actor Jermaine Williams, writer Bob Eisele, and actor Denzel Whitaker, with ProCon.org CEO Kamy Akhavan at the Reagan Library

On Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, more than 300 Southern California students, teachers, and counselors took a field trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. They joined ProCon.org and the Reagan Library to honor the film The Great Debaters, celebrate Black History Month, and kick off the Great Communicator debate series.

ProCon.org’s mission to educate on the issues and President Ronald Reagan’s call for “informed patriotism” led to an ideal partnership between the two nonpartisan organizations. Representing schools from Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties were students from Centennial, Dominguez, Smidt Tech, and Apollo High Schools, among many others, as well as foster youth from Penny Lane Centers in Northridge.

The day began with an introduction from Anthony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer at the Reagan Library, followed by an homage to debate by Télyse Masaoay, a senior at Vanderbilt University, who told students: “Debate will help us become change-makers, to push back against injustice and fight for the things you care about.”

Next, Lauren Morganbesser, a senior at Harvard Westlake High School in Los Angeles, and Ronald Thompson, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, debated the pros and cons of felon voting using an abbreviated version of the Great Communicator debate series format.

After a short break, The Great Debaters was screened for the student audience. The film tells the true story of how a novice and determined debate team from Wiley College in Texas, a small historically black college, upset the national champion Harvard University debate team. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, the movie starred Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and four young actors playing the Wiley College debate team.

After lunch underneath the actual Air Force One used by President Reagan, students returned to watch a Q&A panel featuring talent from the film. The screenwriter, Bob Eisele, and two of the actors, Denzel Whitaker and Jermaine Williams, who played debaters James Farmer and Hamilton Burgess, shared their experiences from making the film. A video of their discussion is available here. Eisele, who grew up in a multi-racial family, said, “I knew young black men and women who were intellectual athletes. And all we saw were sports athletes.” He described the tale of Wiley College’s debate team as “a great human story… one I was burning to tell.”

Actor Jermaine Williams said, “This was a time when we didn’t have a voice, and people didn’t care what we thought.” Denzel Whitaker added, “Even in 2007 when we made this project, our voice was just starting to grow, and we’re starting to see that now more and more in the media because we’re becoming a little bit more conscious.”

ProCon.org CEO Kamy Akhavan summarized the day’s purpose by saying that debate requires skill at thinking, speaking, and listening. He led the audience in a powerful exercise that demonstrated the importance of listening.

All of the attending teachers and counselors received a 12-page film discussion guide tied to Common Core standards, created by ProCon.org researchers. This guide was also posted on the ProCon.org website, making it available to teachers everywhere at no charge.

A generous grant from the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation allowed ProCon.org to host this event at the Reagan Library, as part of the ongoing Arthur N. Rupe Debate Series in LA.

From left to right: Télyse Masaoay, Jermaine Williams, Bob Eisele, Denzel Whitaker, and Ronald Thompson during The Great Debaters panel discussion