Grandson Tells of 'Debaters' Coach Tolson's Legacy

Ken Tolson is the real-life grandson of Melvin B. Tolson, whose work as an educator, mentor and poet is highlighted in the new film The Great Debaters. The story gives moviegoers a look at the life of Tolson, and the all-black debate team that historically defeated an all-white team in the 1930s.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: our producers weigh in on their favorite music from 2007.

But first, Denzel Washington not only directed "The Great Debaters," but plays one of the lead: Melvin B. Tolson. Melvin B. Tolson had one grandson, Ken Tolson. He was an informal consultant for the film. Last week, we had a nice conversation that we decided to share with you again.

Your grandfather wrote two particularly noteworthy poems. One, "Dark Symphony"…

Mr. TOLSON: Yes.

MARTIN: …was considered his greatest work. It was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1941. We actually have a recording of him reading some of "Dark Symphony."

Mr. TOLSON: Okay.

MARTIN: Let's listen.

(Soundbite of recording poetry reading)

Mr. MELVIN B. TOLSON (Debate Coach; Social Activist; Poet): (Reading) None in the land can say to us black men today, you send the tractors on their bloody path, and create Okies for the grapes of wrath. You breed the slum that breeds a native son to damn the good earth Pilgrim fathers won. None in the land can say to us black men today, you duped the poor with rags-to-riches tales, and leave the workers empty dinner pails. You stuff the ballot box and honest men are muzzled by your demagogic din. None in the land can say to us black men today, you smash stock markets with your coined blitzkriegs, and make a hundred million guinea pigs. You counterfeit our Christianity, and bring contempt upon democracy.

MARTIN: A lot of passion there.

Mr. TOLSON: It's…

MARTIN: Was he always like that?

Mr. TOLSON: Yes, and when I spoke to - at the D.C. premiere and then - used several words to describe my grandfather - and again, I had to live my grandfather's life through my, you know, my family and friends, and Wiley Langston, and…

MARTIN: Why - because he died before you were born?

Mr. TOLSON: He died, and there's been a misprint in a couple of papers that keeps saying that I was 2 years old. Now, I was 2 months old when he died. I used the word maverick and just hearing the stories how my grandfather would just, you know, debate people out in the open. You know, he always challenged inappropriate laws - the Jim Crow laws and the separation laws. He challenged that.

Before the '30s, when he graduated from school, he and several class members -that he would be out there protesting stuff, and they would get banged in the head or worse. And later on, he realized you have to challenge the laws and everything with your mind and not physical activity per se at that time.

MARTIN: Well, in the film, he is shown as an activist, and he's shown taking some risks…

Mr. TOLSON: Mm-hmm. Yes.

MARTIN: …in the service of his political activism. Is that accurate?

Mr. TOLSON: That's very accurate. My grandmother has said to me, there were several times that she really didn't want him doing those things because it endangered the family. There were several times grandmother talked about bottles being thrown through the window late in the middle of the night when he was professor while he was staying near campus. There are several times that he'd be out in public and just approached by the law, you know, and harassed.

With - later on when he wasn't actually at Wiley but at Langston where he ran for mayor, there was opposition that said that we don't want, you know, you smart Negroes stirring up, you know, trouble or trying to change things, and they burned his house down. So - but it didn't stop him.

MARTIN: He did eventually become mayor of Langston.

Mr. TOLSON: You're right.

MARTIN: And what - he served four terms.

Mr. TOLSON: Four terms, yeah.

MARTIN: I read a piece about your grandfather, a piece in American Legacy, which I think is a piece that sparked this whole film, and one of the criticisms was that he was an autocrat. And there's a bit of an irony in there, isn't it, in that he's teaching kids to stand up for their rights…

Mr. TOLSON: Right.

MARTIN: …and to think for themselves and to - well, he made them memorize all their arguments.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you find that funny? Or at least, you know…

Mr. TOLSON: Well, I…

MARTIN: …a little contradictory?

Mr. TOLSON: I don't know. I didn't grow up in that time. And according to my dad, my grandma, my uncles, my grandfather was a perfectionist. And in order to get the message over at that time, he had to write the, you know, the arguments for students. Even though he wanted all the students to think for themselves and everything, but in public and where they're going to be recorded or, you know, people taking notes, that he wanted to make sure the right message was getting across and hadn't been embellishing in any kind of way.

MARTIN: He felt the stakes were very high.

Mr. TOLSON: Right.

MARTIN: He also wrote "Libretto" for the Republic of Liberia. He was made the poet laureate of…

Mr. TOLSON: Yes.

MARTIN: …Liberia? How did that honor come about?

Mr. TOLSON: The colored immigrants, when they came in the early '30s and early '40s. In the South particularly, you know, they took residence near a lot of our HBCUs. And there were several nationalists from Liberia who were very fond of my grandfather's works and teachings. And I think, it just got - when they went back home or whatever, it just, you know, this news traveled. As well as on a national level, my grandfather was one of the few African-American poets who were starting to be published in - what's the word I want?

MARTIN: Journals.

Mr. TOLSON: Yeah, the journals that weren't African-American based.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ken Tolson. He is the grandson of Melvin B. Tolson, the subject of a new film, "The Great Debaters."

You mentioned that your grandfather graduated from Lincoln University, a great historically black college. You are a Morehouse man, went to Morehouse. And when you went there and when your professors found out that you were a grandson of Melvin Tolson, what happened?

Mr. TOLSON: First day of class, freshman year, and Dr. Reed was going down the roll call and…

MARTIN: Dr. Reed is?

Mr. TOLSON: A professor of English, and he said Ken Tolson, Ken Tolson. Are you not related to Melvin B. Tolson?

Mr. TOLSON: I said, yes, sir, that was my grandfather. And he talked a little bit, and he said see me after class. And I went to his office, and he said I was taught by your grandfather and your grandfather made an indelible impression on me and in our American society. And he said I want to do something different here with you. I want to do this project for the semester. And I said to myself, what's he talking about? And he had me do this paper. And he said this will prepare you for your masters thesis, because this is going to be a masters thesis when you finish.

And I did a research on my grandfather. And to be honest, I probably would not have done that if it wasn't for Professor Reed. For one, I went to a private school here in the Washington metropolitan area, and I had two instance happened where, you know, the teachers tells the class to report on a famous person, and I did it on my grandfather. And one teacher, in one instance, like, there's no way in the world that this individual did all of this. Right. I said, well, what do you want? The teacher that time said, well, you got to show me records or something. I mean, the paper…

MARTIN: You're kidding. So you were accused of embellishing…

Mr. TOLSON: Right.

MARTIN: …or making it up?

Mr. TOLSON: Making it up. The paper came back - when I submitted and got it back, no errors for grammar or anything, just a big C minus. And the (unintelligible) was, if you can't prove any of this, then your grades are in jeopardy for a semester.

So, of course, I went home, told my dad, and my dad first gave me the - it was the invitation that went out to everyone, I guess, in the Washington society to the Library of Congress, saying come hear Melvin B. Tolson speak. So I took that in, and the teacher still didn't believe, thought this was (unintelligible) invitation, and said, okay. So I had my dad he come up to the school and straighten everything out.

MARTIN: Wow. That must have been a very painful experience.

Mr. TOLSON: Yeah. It was. And it's sad, but then again, that's the type of racism sometimes that we go through, and what have you. I did this report for Dr. Reed, and over the course of the semester, I actually went out to Wiley College. I went out to Langston, and those were my first times stepping foot on those campuses as a young adult and really fully appreciate the campus setting, the campus environment, the people there who knew my grandfather, you know.

MARTIN: What did all that mean to you after you had a chance to dig in to your grandfather's life and history?

Mr. TOLSON: I was just hoping that in my life, that I could do 25 percent of what he did. It was just so powerful and moving, and during the process of interviewing the people for my paper, how he - my grandfather laid down or stuck his life, life on the edge for them. You know, they'd say, if your grandfather hadn't done that, we would still be doing this today. You know, those kind of, you know, statements. And it was just really powerful - overwhelming at times.

MARTIN: What does it mean to you now to have your grandfather's story told?

Mr. TOLSON: I cried when I first saw the first commercial, because, again, I had to live my grandfather's life through my family's life. And to see Denzel, like a scene where, in the opening scene, he climbs up on the desk, I've heard my parents - I mean, heard my uncles talk about that, as well as a former Wiley students. You know, his methods, you know, some people might say were - are different, but he opened students' minds.

And most African-Americans during that time period who came from those schools, you can't come from the Midwest and not be, not know who my grandfather was. And not be affected by the social movements, the educational, all those activities that he was involved in.

MARTIN: Now that this story is now available for others to experience, I'd like to know what you would like people to take from this film and from your grandfather's life and legacy?

Mr. TOLSON: I can't stress enough the importance of education. A lot of people talk about what we really need to write the checks or get into our public schools, get quality teachers, educate city officials, whatever we need to do to focus on the drastic issue and the systemic issue within our communities right now, because we're not - as a nation, we're not even in the top 25 nations in regards to education. We're not moving forward in the arts, language arts, or the sciences and the math. And if we don't change that now, I mean, really now, 10 years from now, we're going to suffer even more. Because where are we going to get the next black scientists? Where do we get the next black educators if we're not serious about education?

MARTIN: Ken Tolson is chief operating officer of the Emerging Technology Consortium. He is the grandson of poet Melvon B. Tolson, who is a subject of a new film "The Great Debaters." Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TOLSON: Thank you. I really appreciate your having me on board, Michel.

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