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A Lesson From the Great Debaters: MLK's Dream 50 Years Later

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In 1935, Southern Methodist University, an all-white university with ties to the Dallas elite, declined to debate Wiley College, a historically black college made famous in The Great Debaters.

Seventy-four years later, in 2009, SMU held up its end of the bargain and debated Wiley College.

Since 2009, the schools' debate teams have argued regularly over contemporary issues--from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to the power of the pen over the sword.

When I learned I would be one of the SMU debaters arguing against Wiley College on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," I was thrilled.

The topic for debate was predictable: "America is faltering on MLK's dream in 2013."

I have always been comfortable debating either side of any resolution: free trade versus protectionism; growth versus inequality; church versus state.

There were always pros and cons, sides chosen by a coin flip. It was my job, as a debater, to pick winning arguments--the side didn't matter as much as the final ballot.

This debate was fundamentally different. The room was filled with students from Paul Quinn College, another historically black college on the edge of Dallas, who filled the room with a vocal passion--oohs and ahs--unfamiliar to me. Debate was a matter of weighing arguments, not emotions, I thought.

My debate partner and I made our case in swift motions. He, a Jew, and I, a Muslim, were debating together in the type of post-racial world that Dr. King had imagined. He and I could use the courts--and many other equal-opportunity institutions--to air our grievances. He and I could be friends despite thousands of years of tensions and violence between our religious groups. Our argument boiled down to a central and practical premise: Progress takes time.

But the switch-side debate I had grown so uncomfortable with was failing me.

Since King's speech in 1963, the median household income gap between blacks and whites has increased by almost $10,000, while the marriage rate gap between blacks has increased by 11 percent.

Wiley College stood behind more than just numbers. It stood behind "stand your ground laws, New York City's "stop and frisk" program, and black unemployment.

And the Wiley College debaters, unlike me, stood behind experience--the experience of being black in America. The negative attention they received in department stores. The confusion when they were told they "sounded white."

Wiley College defeated us on a 3-0 ballot. For the first time in my life, I was proud--even happy--to lose. I had defended a position so untruthful that I felt dirty.

After the debate, one of my coaches told me, "You had an unwinnable argument and made it sound great."

The loftier the rhetoric, the easier it is to win, I had always been told. Debate was rhetoric and rhetoric was debate--two sides of the same coin.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there will be speeches--full of lofty rhetoric--from all sides of the aisle about his legacy and our progress.

When the students from Paul Quinn cheered Wiley College's victory, they cheered more than a victory in a university classroom. The final ballot validated, according to many of the spectators, a truth often swept under the rug: We have not yet achieved King's dream.