Rhetoric of the 1960s: Movements
Shared Characteristics of the Movements
Sixties' Movements used diverse media
- Music. The relatively cheap production of phonograph records and
later tapes, and the potential for gathering people at a concert, meant that
music was a important media for this movement. Songs such as Bob Dylan's "The
Times they are a'changin'" were key rhetorical artifacts supporting 60s
movement activities. The joint performance of music was a powerful ritual
uniting members of a movement.
- Mass Rallies. Diverse arrays of speakers appeared at mass rallies.
Voices enhanced by bullhorns and public address systems diffused the words.
Chants of slogans, singing of songs, and call-response (audience reaction
to speeches) provided communicative experiences that united the movement,
developed pride in its power and celebrated the rhetoric that energized its
members. The Street. Less organized than the mass rallies were the
street. In its disorganized form, these were riots. Buildings and other property
were burned. Police were confronted with violence. There is dispute whether
these events were productive or not for movements. They certainly focused
discontent and communicated that discontent to the establishment. But they
also stimulated a wish for "law and order" that created resistance
to addressing the discontent.
- Institutional Sites. Two institutional sites were particularly important
to diffusion of the rhetoric of movements in the 1960s. The Black churches
of the South provided an institutional home for the civil rights movement,
and to a lesser extent the Black Power movement. These churches provided both
a public space where meetings and rallies could be held, and a leadership
structure that could maximize the power of the movement to organize energies
of its members. The college campuses were a second institutional site. This
site was important because it provided a concentration of movement activists,
maintained an idealistic commitment to free speech and novelty of ideas, and
a focus for resistance. Unlike the Black churches, the leaders of colleges
and universities resisted the movements of the 60s and in many cases were
targets of the movements. But the geographical and institutional campus was
not easily controlled and movements, even those attacking their administrations,
thrived in the atmosphere.
- Mimeograph Machine. The printing press of the 1960s was the mimeograph
machine. Put another way, this was the "social media" of the decade.
Mass produced one page flyers announced events, trumpeted causes, and urged
action. Late in the period, the photocopy machine had been invented and took
the place of this printing relic.
- The mass media of minor importance. Sixties movements did not generally
use the mass media to diffuse their messages. American mass media were controlled
by institutional powers and did not provide access to leaders of the movements.
Even mass media that tried to provide such voice often selected their own
leaders to present to the public at large, and these leaders often had no
authority within the movement. Where the media were important in movements,
was television's ability to disseminate stark visual images that expanded
the limits of "direct" experience that rhetors for the movement
could talk about as a common experience for their members. For example, a
famous photograph of a naked Vietnamese child running down a road in Vietnam
with the flames from an American napalm bomb burning her flesh was stark image
of American use of military power. Such images, seen by everyone, became a
part of common experience and the stuff of rhetorical proof.
The movements focused discontent
The movements of the 60s were particularly
adept at at Stage 1 of movement rhetoric: focusing discontent. Direct action
created demonstrations of the moral bankruptcy of the system. Pictures of young
African Americans being felled by high-power fire hoses, or pursued by snarling
police dogs, or being beaten with police batons were projected on television
screens. Burned buses and even murdered activists made the point about the validity
of the critique. The movements were adept at using the images broadcast as news
by the mass media to attract energy.
The movements generated confrontation
The movements succeeded in countering the cooptation and suppression
strategies of the dominant order through three characteristics:
- Physical Confrontation. In both violent and non-violent ways, the
movements challenged the legitimacy of the established orders. Peaceful lunch
hour sit-ins challenged white power, threatened vigilante violence from resisting
white citizens, and would lead to police violence. In the process, that laws
kept people from the simple act of eating at a lunch counter were demonstrated.
Images of Black Panthers patrolling the streets with automatic weapons and
ammunition belts created such fear in law enforcement that they would invade
an apartment in the middle of the night and kill panthers lying asleep in
their beds. Such actions not only prevented cooptation of members of the movement
who felt under siege, they also served a proof that the movement's charges
of militarism and violence against the dominant order were given validity
in the images.
- Rhetorical Confrontation. Such strategies as name calling (calling
police officers "pigs"), polemic rhetoric (a construction of the
established order as the "enemy"), and a totalizing rhetoric of
exaggeration (painting the enemy with a broad brush as if there were no variation
of opinions within the dominant order) polarized agents of the dominant order
and those in the social movement. Rhetorical confrontation made compromise
with the dominant order unthinkable for those in the movement, and inflamed
the agents of the dominant order thus inducing the over-response of the dominant
order in physical confrontation.
- Moralistic Identity. The moral rhetoric characteristic of American
social movements when combined with rhetorical confrontation and the violence
of the dominant order created a moral distinction between movement and dominant
order. Such a dramatic drawing of moral distinction, ofttimes with the dominant
order's own values, gave fervent commitment to those in the movement. It also
made the compromise appropriate in cooptation seem irresponsible and even
The perfection of strategies of confrontation in the sixties
was a great power of the movement.
- Patterns of leadership in these movements varied.
Often the leadership was dispersed. Lifestyle (cultural) movements particularly
discouraged leaders and explored alternative leadership arrangements. There
was always a leadership function, although it might be dispersed rather than
- Often the problem of Task 2 (Directing Energy) was
controlling the energy. Riots were uncontrolled energy. As indicated above
the benefit of these is disputed.
Civil Rights Movement
A Brief History of Race in US
- Western society and race. Race as marker was
a characteristics of Western society since the 1500s. Slavery was based on
a color marker. From 1730s through 1860s, skin color represented free status:
white assumed free, black assumed slave. African Americans could be free but
would need to prove free. Whites did not.
- American Apartheid. After freedom, Southern
political leaders reinvent a rhetoric of race around hierarchy of races. Scientific
racism provides needed proof of racial grades. Law then inscribes that difference
into a social code. And symbols of inferior status were constructed to texture
daily life. Thus, there is a rhetoric of day-to-day life that inscribes racial
- African American community is split on how
to confront this apartheid. Booker T. Washington recognizes an African American
niche in the society and urges the freed slaves and their descendants to exploit
it. W.E.B. DuBois resists and urges resistance by all to this apartheid. The
Niagara Movement, which DuBois founded, and the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which it spawns, begins a sixty year
legal battle to overturn apartheid.
- In the 1950s their effort becomes a movement.
In 1948, the Democratic Party with Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota taking the
lead opposed apartheid in its national convention platform. Southern Democrats
broke away and nominated their own candidate for President. Then in 1954,
the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a suit brought by the NAACP that segregation
in schools was unconstitutional (thus, unAmerican). This set off massive resistance
in the South. The movement resists this Southern backlash.
- The next decade: 1955, Montgomery Bus boycott.
Murder of Emmet Till. 1960, Greensboro sit ins. 1961, Freedom Rides through
South. 1963, Birmingham summer. March on Washington. 1965, Congress passes
Voting Rights Bill. 1968, King Assassination.
Civil Rights Groups and Leaders
Civil Rights is formally a fragmented movement with much
cooperation among groups, but each maintaining a leadership structure.
- Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Martin
Luther King's group.
- Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Originally a group organized with dispersed leadership to provide training
in non-violent techniques. Eventually transformed under Stokeley Carmichael
into Black Power group.
- Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Sponsored Freedom
Rides. Led by James Farmer.
- National Urban League. Emphasized ghetto conditions
North and South. Takes the movement to the North. Founded in New York City
in 1910, but led during the Civil Rights Era by Whitney Young.
Media of Communication
- Black Churches above all. It was said that "Sunday
was the most segregated day of the week" in the South. American Apartheid
kept places of worship strictly separated. The movement took advantage of
this institutional division to organize. The African American church became
the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. The church served as a headquarters
of sorts for the activities. And, the ministerial corps provided leaders such
as Martin Luther King. Finally, in a movement where morality was a key rhetorical
theme, the African American church provided a moral symbol of the movement.
- Mass Rallies. The March on Washington is the outstanding
example of the rally, but in hundreds of places throughout the South supporters
were called together to hear King and the other dynamic orators of the movement,
to sing "We Shall Overcome" and to demonstrate their solidarity.
- Music. The gospel music of the Black church was important,
but none more so that "We Shall Overcome" that became the rhetorical
symbol of the movement.
Mode of Rhetorical Engagement
- Physical confrontation was at the heart of the movement's
strategy. The movement's commitment was to non-violent physical confrontation
with the symbols of American Apartheid. This was an asymmetrical violence
where the demonstraters were committed to non-violence and the enforcers of
American Apartheid would respond with violence. Note that this was a strategy
that the movement did not control. It depended on being able to predict the
violence of Apartheid. This was predictable, however. Tracing back to slavery
violence against African Americans was a part of the modus operadi of Southern
leadership. After abolition, the Ku Klux Klan renewed the use of violence
to control African Americans. So, expectations of the use of violence to resist
the movement was to be expected. This set up the rhetorical strategy of moral
- The Strategy of Moral Inequivalence worked
- Material base. The induced violence demonstrated
the character of the system. The images of this violence were carried
as news in the Mass Media.
- Rhetorical component. There were two rhetorical
parts to the strategy. First, celebrate your non-violence. Non-violence
had to be taught and insisted upon in directing the energy of the movement.
But it also had to be declared as the philosophy of the movement. It created
the image of the African American victim. The rhetoric rested on the myth
of the Christian martyr, celebrating the early history of the Christian
Church in which Roman authority martyred the founders of the church. The
rhetoric even taught Christ's message to "Love thy enemy" thus
giving the movement a New Testament content. The second rhetorical part
of the strategy was to ground the moral values of the movement in American
myths. This was "Equality before the Law." The Declaration of
Independence with its charge that "All men are created equal"
became the central document of this celebration of American commitment.
Thus, the lawless violence of the Apartheid system became the "UnAmerican"
element rather than the movement.
- Catharsis. Thus the demonstration of moral
inequivalence condemned the corrupt system of American Apartheid as UnAmerican.
It solicited the national political system in battle against it. The movement
became the fulfillment of the American mission.
Locating the Movement
Historical Roots: The question of violence
- Racial violence has had a presence throughout American
- During slavery there was considerable evidence
of physical violence against slaves. Thieves would have hands severed,
runaways feet. Slaves were whipped for the terror value. Abolitionist
Theodore Weld had documented the widespread use of violence in Slavery
as It Is.
- After the Civil War, the White leadership of the
South turned to the Ku Klux Klan to reestablish political power through
physical intimidation and killing of politically active African Americans.
- Lynching continued into the 20th century with
the White community gathering as African Americans accused of crimes were
hanged without trial. Between 1900 and 1909, nearly 800 African Americans
were lynched in the United States. By the 1930s, this was down to 120,
but lynchings continued into the 1960s.
- By 1960, living in the African American communities
remained dangerous. All though African Americans were 10.5% of the US
population in 1960, they were the victims of over half the murders committed
in the United States.
- The question this history posed is: What should be
the response to that violence? The two answers defined the difference between
the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements:
- The Civil Rights movement believed the proper
response was non-violence in the face of violence. Philosophically it
believed that this non-equivalency starkly represented the moral inequivalency
that would deliver integration.
- The Black Nationalist movement believed that Blacks
should arm and defend themselves against this violence. Philosophically
they believed that power would be delivered only when militancy led to
an active defense of the community.
Historical Roots: The Economic Power of African Americans
- The other issue central to the Black Nationalist position
was the systematic separation of the African American community from the capitalist
- In 1960, despite the fact African Americans were 10.5%
of the population, only 2.2% of US businesses were owned by African Americans.
In fact, the predominant pattern in Urban African American communities was
that economic resources were owned by absentee owners who left the community
with the wealth. The exception to this rule were the segregated services such
as barber and beauty shops. The urban riots of the 1960s and 1970s were notable
for targeted non-Black owned businesses in their communities.
Media of Communication
- Primarily the streets. The rhetoric of Black nationalism
was spread through the African American public sphere in the urban areas of
- Mass rallies were particularly important in the Black
Power phase of the movement. Having grown out of the Civil Rights movement
this habit carried over.
- Black Muslims organized through their mosques, thus
patterning the importance of the Black church. They also had the most active
use of print media, publishing newspapers in major Northern urban areas.
Mode of Engagement
- Physical Confrontation with Black Nationalism was
violent. Shoot outs with police occurred regularly costing lives on both sides.
Philosophically they demonstrated a willingness to defend against violence.
Thus, violence was motivated as a defensive rather than an offensive strategy.
- There was also a symbolic theater of defense. Security
was provided by the movement for their leaders, visible at all appearances.
There was similarly an armed presence. Often the security was uniformed. Militant
display was a part of their visual rhetoric.
Style of the Rhetoric
- Polemic. Strong language was used to condemn the system.
Vocabulary was confrontational. There was no expectation of peaceful change.
- Prominent was a narrative of warfare. The antagonist
was "the White man." The protagonist the "strong Black soldier."
There were two plots: the system oppressing and killing Blacks, and the strong
Black soldier resisting.
- Narrative of the Black community. There was a second
narrative prominent. The antagonist was designated with the vocabulary of
the "house nigger" or "Uncle Tom," the African American
who would kowtow to the Whites to curry favor. They did the White man's bidding.
The protagonist was active Black Pride. The plot featured the rise of a Black
- The rhetoric was also marked by a kind of common sense
logic. Economic pragmatism explained the conditions of the ghetto. The rhetoric
was based in description of "reality" rather than an idealistic
- The alignment of identity was by race, not with the
United States. Their nationalism was exclusively identified with the Black