MICHEL MARTIN, host:
As we've been talking about Denzel Washington not only directed the "The Great Debaters," but plays one of the leads, the character of Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson was a renowned educator and poet and when we saw the film, we just knew we had to learn more about him. So we're pleased to be joined by Ken Tolson. He is the only grandson of Melvin B. Tolson and he was a consultant on the film.
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. KEN TOLSON (Chief Operating Officer, Emerging Technology Consortium): Thank you, Michel, for having me today.
MARTIN: Now your grandfather was a major figure both during time of the Harlem Renaissance and during the '40s and '50s. What kind of stories did you hear about him?
Mr. TOLSON: Numerous stories. Well, I mean, I don't know where to star because, for one, I'm Omega. My grandfather's a very famous Omega. My grandfather was first editor of our Oracle, really pushed the fraternity from a social standpoint and focuses on social issues throughout the '30s and '40s. From educational standpoint, he was a very good friends with Benjamin E. Mays who was one - former president of Morehouse College where I went to school.
MARTIN: Your grandfather wrote two particularly noteworthy poems. One, "Dark Symphony"…
Mr. TOLSON: Yes.
MARTIN: …is considered his greatest work. It was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1941. We actually had a recording of him reading some of "Dark Symphony."
Mr. TOLSON: Okay.
MARTIN: Let's listen.
(Soundbite of recording "Dark Symphony")
Mr. MELVIN B. TOLSON (Inspirational Debate Coach; Social Activist; Poet): 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 dupe 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: He's…
MARTIN: Was he always like that?
Mr. TOLSON: Yes and I had to live my grandfather's life through my family and friends and Wiley and then Langston. I…
MARTIN: Why because he died before you were born?
Mr. TOLSON: He died and there's been misprinting a couple of papers that keeps saying that I was 2 years old. No, I was 2 months old when he died.
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 and while he was staying, you know, campus. 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 the he was an autocrat. And there's a bit of an irony in there, isn't it? And 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 that time, he had to write the, you know, the arguments of students. He wanted to make sure the right message was getting across and it hadn't been embellishing in kind of way.
MARTIN: He felt the stakes were very high.
Mr. TOLSON: Right. And it were.
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 (unintelligible) our HBC youth. And there were several nationalist 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, just news traveled as well as on national level, my grandfather's one of few African-American poets who were starting to be published and (unintelligible)…
Mr. TOLSON: Yeah, other journals that they weren't African-American based.
MARTIN: 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 one of your professors found out that you're a grandson of Melvin Tolson, what happened?
Mr. TOLSON: First day of class, freshman year, Dr. Reid(ph) was going down the roll call. And…
MARTIN: Dr. Reid is?
Mr. TOLSON: Professor of English.
Mr. TOLSON: And he said, Ken Tolson. Ken Tolson - Tolson, are you not related to Melvin B. Tolson? I said, yes, sir, that was my grandfather. And he talked a little bit and he said, see me after class.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TOLSON: 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 on American society. And he said, I want you - I want to do something different here with you. We're going to do this project for the semester. And I'm saying to myself, what's he talking about? And he'd had me do this paper and he said this will prepare you for your master thesis because this is going to be a master thesis when you finished. 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 Reid. I did this report for Dr. Reid and over the course of the semester, I actually went out to Wiley College, I went out to Langston and those were my first time stepping on - 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…
MARTIN: Well, 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 the scene where - in the opening scene he climbs up on a desk. I've heard my parents, my uncles talk about that as well of former Wiley students. You know, his methods, you know, some people might say we are different, but he opened students' minds. And most African-Americans during that time period who came from those schools, you cannot 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 (unintelligible) and all that.
MARTIN: Ken Tolson is chief operating officer of the Emerging Technology Consortium. He is the grandson of poet Melvin 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 you having me on board, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.