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The Great Debaters
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Let Freedom Ring

By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Contributing Writer

CBN.com In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King appealed to the American nation to recognize the sins of slavery and racial hatred and to do something tangible to heal the wounds.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. … And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Recently I had the privilege of watching another dramatization of the shameful condition of racism in America in the deeply moving motion picture, The Great Debaters directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey, it is inspired by the true story of the debate team from Wiley College, an African-American school in Marshall, Texas. The film is set in the segregated Jim Crow south of the 1930s.

Without giving away the ending, the team from this small black college is so focused and dedicated to declaring the truth that they eventually earn an invitation to debate at Harvard University. This landmark event marked a turning point for black students and black colleges in America.

The film highlights the reality of the racial hatred that lingered for more than one hundred years after the American Civil War -- and sadly, that still exists today, though often demonstrated in more subtle, but still destructive ways.

In my view, the problem is that too many non-black Americans are not willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for the cruel injustices done to black Americans in the century following the Civil War. We have, in large measure, finally come to the place where we will recognize and admit to the inhumanities of slavery. But we still have a difficult time comprehending the horrors of Jim Crow America.

That is why you should take your older children to see The Great Debaters. That is why a movie like The Great Debaters is an important contribution to the dialogue concerning race in America. That is why a movie like The Great Debaters should be shown in our classrooms. And that is why I have added The Great Debaters along side Amazing Grace as my two favorite movies of 2007.

Amazing Grace brought in the year with the heroic story of William Wilberforce's crusade to end the Atlantic Slave Trade in the early Nineteenth Century. The Great Debaters ended the year with the tale of young African-American students working diligently to overcome the wretched remnants and consequences of racial hatred in the early Twentieth Century. Both movies speak relevantly to the ongoing struggle for racial reconciliation in the early Twenty-first Century.

A History of Abuse

The problem we face in 2008 is that there are still many who are uneducated -- by circumstance or by choice -- about the plight of black America prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Let me give you some examples to help you understand the depths of racism in this country during that tragic time.

In 1997, President Clinton, on behalf of the nation, apologized for the federal "Tuskegee experiment," in which government doctors withheld syphilis treatment from a group of African-American men for four decades -- without informing the men of their actions. Six hundred twenty three men were involved in the experiment in which the doctors gave some of the men medicine to treat the disease, while others were given a placebo. 

The experiment was intended to study the effects of syphilis over an extended period of time.  In 40 years, 128 of these men died from the disease. Many went blind. Some became insane. The project was halted when Associated Press reporter Jean Heller blew the whistle on July 25, 1972. 

Only 4 of these men were still alive to receive the nation's apology. 

The reason it took so long for the general public to be alerted was that the medical community did not see a problem with the experiment.  In fact, the research was published in more than one medical journal.  The prevailing view in the health establishment was that there may be no other time in history where this kind of study could take place. The government doctors wanted the study to continue to gather as much data as possible.

Some African-American leaders believe that the doctors not only refused treatment in the Tuskegee case, but they purposely injected some of the men with the disease. There is no evidence to support this claim, yet the pervading attitude highlights the gulf of distrust between many blacks and their fellow Americans.

With regard to those involved in the heinous Tuskegee experiments, no apology or monetary settlement can wash away forty years of deception and devious medical behavior.  Unfortunately, the scars of this atrocity will be a part of the fabric of American society for a very long time to come.

In The Negro Holocaust, Robert A. Gibson of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute describes the reign of terror by lynch mobs that pervaded in much of the southern United States from the 1880s through 1950.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lynching of black people in the southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize blacks and maintain white supremacy. In the South, during the period 1880 to 1940, there was deep-seated and all-pervading hatred and fear of the Negro which led white mobs to turn to “lynch law” as a means of social control. Lynchings—open public murders of individuals suspected of crime conceived and carried out more or less spontaneously by a mob—seem to have been an American invention…

Most of the lynchings were by hanging or shooting, or both. However, many were of a more hideous nature—burning at the stake, maiming, dismemberment, castration, and other brutal methods of physical torture. Lynching therefore was a cruel combination of racism and sadism, which was utilized primarily to sustain the caste system in the South. Many white people believed that Negroes could only be controlled by fear. To them, lynching was seen as the most effective means of control.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,445 African-Americans were murdered by lynching in the United States of America between 1882 and 1964.

Years ago, when I served as an associate pastor, I had the privilege of co-officiating a funeral of an African-American man whose family attended our church. After the conclusion of the graveside service, the family remained and watched until the casket was lowered into the ground. The African-American pastor who had preached the eulogy turned to me and explained that black families often remain at the grave because in years-gone-by undertakers were in the habit of removing the body of a black person and burying it, keeping the expensive coffin to sell to someone else.

Hope for the Future

Another of my favorite movies is Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, which is the story of a group of Africans who revolted against their captors during their Atlantic crossing, only to be arrested for murder and insurrection. This historic case was propelled to the Supreme Court where former president, John Quincy Adams, served as legal council to the Africans.

In the movie, Adams stands before the Supreme Court and declares:

…gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the south, and with our president who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead -- and I know this is a controversial idea -- is freedom...

And the proof is the lengths to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try, and try, and try, against all odds -- against all prejudices, to get home.

Movies like Amistad, The Great Debaters, and Amazing Grace show us that there is hope for reconciliation amongst the races. People can do something tangible to heal the wounds inflicted through past injustices. Just as the Wiley College debaters risked their lives to show that blacks were created intellectually equal with whites, years earlier William Wilberforce poured out his life to see the end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We can -- individually and collectively -- make a difference.

The Apostle Paul declares in First Corinthians, Chapter 13, that "love never fails." To see these lingering wounds healed, people of all races must reach out to one another with acts of genuine love -- not only in words, but in tangible deeds. Our apologies must convey the message that not only are we are sorry, but that we recognize that we were wrong for years of hatred and abuse. 

It took years of prejudice and violence to create the racial divide. It will take years of love and acts of goodwill, coupled with prayer, to change hearts and build trust.

Let us begin today to see these wounds healed.

As we enter this New Year, let us all make a determination to rise up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence:

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

This year , let freedom ring.

Comments? Send Craig an e-mail.

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Craig von  BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for CBN.com. Send him an e-mail with your comments.

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