This web site aims to supply teachers, students, and citizens with the raw materials necessary to sustain their own investigations of the civil rights movement: Here you will find primary materials, background information, and research assistance related to individual speeches or songs or documents or images associated with the African American Freedom Struggle, especially from 1955 to 1972.

Supported by the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State as part of its effort to promote civic education and participation, the site offers a repository of materials that are of interest to people who want to know more about the  various “symbolic actions” (i.e., the rhetoric) associated with the African American Freedom Struggle. Developed independently, it nevertheless (and without a doubt) supplements what can be found on many other websites.

You are invited to incorporate this site into your own personal or academic explorations as you see fit: these can be explorations related to an entire college or high school course (e.g., The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement); or explorations related to a specific person or episode within the civil rights movement as part of a course or part of a personal inquiry (e.g., a unit on The Speeches and Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.); or explorations of a personal or academic nature that have to do with a very specific artifact (e.g., King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) or episode (e.g., The Selma Campaign of 1965).

Intended, that is, as a resource for teachers, students, and the general public (and serving as something of a supplement to the Voices of Democracy web site, which is also supported in part by the CDD), it is a collaborative effort on the part of a great many Penn State students, faculty, and friends over a number of years, under the oversight of Professor Jack Selzer. While the fingerprints of many scholars and former students are all over the site and while those contributors are acknowledged in many ways, Sandy Eichorn and Madeline Leamy deserve particular mention for their contributions during 2020. (If you feel that additional acknowledgement is appropriate in a given place, please write.)

The African American Freedom Struggle is a central element within American life, and one productive way to understand it is as a massive, sustained, continuing argument–a battle of words and symbols, as it were. It is not merely a battle of words and symbols, of course, but words and symbols are fundamental to it.

The civil rights movement most fundamentally involves and affects African American citizens. But because it has affected every community in the experience of every generation, it is really The American Story more generally–the rather unique and continuing effort (especially conducted through symbolic and discursive means) to create a national community, a national identity even, by people of disparate ethnicities, religions, and cultural backgrounds. “The civil rights movement” as a general term involves much more than the struggles of African Americans, but this site foregrounds efforts by African Americans in particular: more specifically, it attends to significant rhetorical moments related to the African American Freedom Struggle from the time of Reconstruction through the present day, with particular emphasis on the period of especially important activism from 1954 to 1972.

A different metaphor (than “battle” or “argument”) to describe the movement might even be that of conversation: the Civil Rights Movement, the African American Freedom Struggle, might be understood as a sustained conversation, involving the deployment of all kinds of symbolic actions, concerning equal justice for American minority citizens.

In short, this site serves as a reference point for those interested in understanding the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. If it develops as planned, people will come to visit this site when they want to know more about the conduct of the Civil Rights conversation because it will serve them with resources, information, and images that further their own studies. But it can only reach its potential with help from others: this work in progress requires educators and students and interested citizens to offer suggestions for additions and corrections. Please do contribute!

June 2020

Images compliments of U.S. Embassy The Hague