Chapter 7: Keep the Movement Moving
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137 Chapter 7 keep the movement moving The Birmingham Protest In her captivating memoir, Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter pointed to 1963—what she called the “Year of Birmingham”—as “the national turning point” in the history of racial apartheid in the United States. Central to that historical shift, she wrote, were the huge nonviolent demonstrations that Martin Luther King Jr. staged in the spring, as school-age witnesses for justice overcame the weapons of the state, including Commissioner Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. The spectacle—something that seemed to belong in the Old Testament rather than the American mid-century—nationalized the faltering civil rights movement and galvanized public opinion behind federal legislation to abolish segregation.1 In his study of the civil rights movement, But for Birmingham, Glenn Eskew similarly argued that the Birmingham campaign “ended the stalemate in national race relations,” forcing the kind of changes needed for “opening the system to African Americans.”2 As both accounts make clear, what happened in Birmingham in April and May of 1963 represents a climactic moment in the history of the civil rights movement. It brought the power of a well-planned, highly organized mass campaign to bear on one of the chief strongholds of racial oppression in the South.3 It succeeded in pitting the city’s economic establishment against its political leadership, and it evoked the moral outrage of the nation against the South’s treatment of its black citizens by provoking the city’s virulently racist commissioner of public safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, and his police force into violently attempting to quell the demonstration, which eventually compelled the Kennedy administration to get involved on the side of the protesters. 138 CHAPTER seven This chapter argues that the Birmingham campaign also represented a defining moment in the movement’s rhetorical history. As this book has shown, a central part of that history was the persistent discursive practice, dating back to the beginning of the movement, of connecting the struggle for racial justice with the biblical story of the Exodus. In Birmingham that use of the Exodus became focused almost exclusively on the theme of movement, a theme that was powerfully reinforced by the “freedom songs” that played such an important role in the nightly mass meetings from which the protesters drew their inspiration. This shift in the use of the Exodus coincided with the emergence of the march as the movement’s principal mode of collective action. The march and the Exodus were thus deeply intertwined . The Exodus myth provided the symbolic context out of which the march became the movement’s most important means of protest, imbuing the act of marching with significance as a concrete enactment of the story. Because of its connection to the ancient story, the march became more than simply a medium for demanding equal treatment under the law. Instead, it became a ritual through which protesters could, by means of a bodily performance, act out their most deeply held cultural narrative. The Road to Birmingham In the months following the Montgomery bus boycott, King found himself with a national platform from which to denounce the evils of racism, which he did in a relentless schedule of speeches across the nation and in other parts of the world. At the same time, movement leaders found the transition from a local protest to a national campaign to be far more challenging than expected, and they struggled to maintain any momentum from the Montgomery movement. For the next three years, the newly formed SCLC floundered, struggling to raise enough funds just to meet the payroll for its tiny staff and unable to formulate a coherent strategy for combating segregation in the South. Two significant events helped to change that situation. The first occurred in early 1960, when groups of young black women and men, most of them college students, began to stage sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in cities throughout the South. These demonstrations, keep the movement moving 139 which began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, and soon swept across the South, brought new life to the struggle against segregation. Because of his role as the symbol of the fight against racism , King was inevitably drawn into the student-led movement, initially when he answered a plea to address a student rally in Durham, North Carolina, on February 16 and then two months later through his guidance in the formation of what became the Student Nonviolent...



Subject Headings

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968 -- Language.
  • Exodus, The -- Sermons.
  • Exodus, The.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • King, Martin Luther, -- Jr., 1929-1968 -- Oratory.
  • Rhetoric -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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