Cairo junior and senior high school students got the chance to argue in public July 20 and instead of posturing and raised voices, the kids were calm and used note cards to get their points across.
Eight Cairo students participated in a debate which centered around the theme of “The Colored Soldier and the Civil War, What Were They Fighting For.” The event, sponsored by the Dusable Museum of African American History and the Amistad Coalition, drew a crowd of nearly fifty community members to the Cairo Library.
The question was simple: Why did Abraham Lincoln free the slaves? Both teams had plenty of answers.
D’Erik Menz’s team argued it was a moral imperative that lead to the decision. They argued that because of his Christian beliefs, Lincoln made the order to abolish slavery.
It did not take long for Keyonte Graham and his teammates to find fault with this logic. It was their opinion Lincoln abolished slavery for political reasons only, citing a famous quote from the former president,” If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.”
Menz and his team were quick to point out, however, this was not the entire quote. They reminded their opponents Lincoln followed this statement by saying, “If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.”
The dialogue was lively and professional and Brian Brandtner said this was the point.
“You can disagree with people in the real world … but there is a way to go about it and exercises like this kind of reinforces that,” he said. Brandtner, Cairo’s high school basketball coach, trained one of the teams and he said he saw a lot of growth in his debaters in a very short amount of time.
The teams started practicing July 12 and had just over two weeks to get ready. Brandtner said in the beginning, it was a bit overwhelming but once they began to narrow their focus, the students began to get more involved in the research and put their own ideas out on the table for discussion.
“Once you get to the point where the kids are putting their thoughts into it, then you have done your job,” Brandtner said. He added that independent thought is the goal of any teacher.
“As a teacher, as a coach, you want the kids to be as independent thinkers as possible … You want the kids to think critically.”
Jomo Cheatham, project coordinator for the Dusable Museum’s participation with the Amistad Commission, said this kind of education through action is a big part of his group’s initiative.
“The Amistad Coalition’s participation with the museum is to integrate all forms of education so it is not just specifically focused on the subject, but looks at how it can interconnect to other real, live, relevant parts of society,” he said.
He said each student learned just by participating in the debate and he said the results were clear.
“What we saw on display here … [were] some very intelligent young men who were able to speak really eloquently at times and in-depth in some instances about a topic that they probably did not know nearly as well, about a month ago,” Cheatham said.
Cairo superintendent of schools and team coach Andrea Evers agreed.
“I think both teams showed tremendous poise,” she said. “They had passion, they had reasons behind their decisions.”
Menz said through the process of preparing for the event, he realized there are strengths in disagreeing calmly. Graham said he learned it took a calm, clear point to be effective in arguing a point.
“It takes a lot to win … It takes a lot of information,” he said.
Menz said he really enjoyed participating in the debate and hopes he get the chance to hone his skills on a team. Evers said because of the success this first debate, she is strongly looking into starting a debate or forensics team at the Junior/Senior High School.
–Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242