Oprah and Denzel Washington collaborate on movie about black college debating champs who stunned the South

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MARSHALL, Tex. — When the light at University Avenue is green, drivers can pass Wiley College without a glance. There was a time, however, when this small black liberal arts college here caught the attention of a nation: in the 1930s, Wiley’s polished team of debaters amassed a series of victories over white competitors that stunned the Jim Crow South.

The college would go on to groom civil rights leaders like James Farmer Jr. and Heman Sweatt, whose lawsuit against the University of Texas Law School in the 1940s helped pave the way for public school integration. Yet Wiley itself, like many black colleges, has struggled for survival ever since, and even reached the brink of collapse. This year, professors and staff members accepted unpaid furloughs. One employee could not share a recent report with trustees because his department could not afford copy paper.

Now Wiley is looking for a Hollywood ending.

On Dec. 25, “The Great Debaters" will appear in theaters with Denzel Washington as its director and star, and Oprah Winfrey as producer. The film depicts Wiley’s most glorious chapter: 1935, when the black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson coached his debating team to a national championship.

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