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Rhetoric and Public Address: The Power of Speech

Lessons from the Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement

Just before Easter 1963, one of the largest, most successful mass protests of the Civil Rights era took place in Birmingham, Alabama. Staged during the major shopping season of this predominantly Southern Baptist community, the protest focused on issues that included integration of lunch counters and dressing rooms in department stores.

Every night, at meetings held at Black churches around the city, people learned how to conduct nonviolent protests, took up collections for jailed protesters, and listened to speakers including King, Abernathy, and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The city of Birmingham sent two white police officers to every meeting. The officers wrote reports, reams of them. Those reports are now part of the public record.

And this is the point at which the Birmingham protest becomes of special interest to Bob Withycombe, Whitman College professor of rhetoric and public address, and, hence, to the students of his class on the background of African-American protest rhetoric.

While scholars in other fields of study ask their own sets of questions, "my interest in the Civil Rights Movement is defined by its rhetorical nature," says Withycombe. "My research over the past three or four years has zeroed in on one chunk of that history. It's a two-part study, one focusing on Birmingham and the other on Jackson, Mississippi."

The rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, Withycombe's research demonstrates, is an object lesson in just what constitutes the study of rhetoric and why it belongs fundamentally to a liberal arts education. Beyond oral presentation, beyond a speaking skill, rhetoric is communication that involves judgment and the ability to analyze, interpret, and criticize. In Whitman's rhetoric program, students discover how communication practices influence, constitute, and reflect society.

In his research, Withycombe is interested in what the Birmingham police officers wrote about, what issues and themes they focused on. "Essentially, the officers' reports crossed the color line in a city that said where Black people could live, shop, get a drink of water. Here the situation was reversed. The Blacks were in charge. They were in the majority, in the role of power. Picture these big, crowded churches - where people were hanging from the balconies - and two lone, white police officers."

Withycombe and a student who assisted him - Jason Smith, '98 - have taken a close look at the interaction between the officers and the Black people. Black speakers used the officers as "object lessons," they discovered. "It was a great opportunity to illustrate how stupid racism is, to point out the silliness of the situation, how ludicrous it was. And it was an opportunity to discuss brutality against Blacks," says Withycombe.

"For the first time, through the police presence and their reports, the white establishment had a chance to hear about and to learn about the Black viewpoint."

Perhaps as a consequence, Withycombe believes, one day during the protest white police officers and firemen refused to turn fire hoses on a crowd of Black protesters. In Birmingham, this became the turning point.

"There is a lesson for students to draw from this, that the human mind can find ways to change human-created conditions - even the most hideous, including slavery and segregation," Withycombe concludes. "Rhetoric is the study of argument, of talk. You can imagine a world different from Birmingham. You can imagine a different world and advocate for change. Even bleak and violent situations can be changed through talk.

"Talk is action. In Alabama, they talked through a problem."

Earlier, in 1956 - in Mississippi - a different side of the power of rhetoric was revealed. In an alternate leg of his research, Withycombe examines the subject of how the South "sold" segregation, looking particularly into the activities of the 1956 Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the persuasive rhetoric it spawned. Last summer, he and Whitman senior Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson, who received a Perry Research Scholar Award, went to Jackson, Mississippi, to look for documents and information. They are producing several scholarly articles based on their investigation.

The story that unfolds illustrates what happens when communication is laid on a foundation of falsehood. The story also gives us an idea of how important one aspect of the study of rhetoric is - that part involving the ability to analyze critically the messages we come into contact with everyday.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was set up to thwart the efforts of the federal government to protect the civil rights of Black Americans, Withycombe explains. "It was the commission's business to see that the protesters were unsuccessful."

The commission distributed money from the state legislature to various public and private agencies including local citizens' councils made up of self-appointed, self-selected white power brokers. These agencies engaged in character assassination, spread false stories, applied pressure to businesses and lawmakers, and funneled money to other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Through the commission, public money funded investigative operations that included networks of informers hired to spy on individuals and infiltrate meetings and events. The commission also established speakers bureaus. "These people were very good at arguing that segregation was good for everybody and that what the government was doing was totally wrong. They said 'the government doesn't understand our culture,' " notes Withycombe.

"This raises questions about 'the falsification of history.' What happens when the well is poisoned? Who is telling the truth?"

Connections to All Subjects Fuel the Campus Dialogue

In classes that explore not only the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but also, for example, argument in law and politics, communication in the media, gender and race-based rhetoric, and commercial speech, Whitman students delve into rhetorical theory and criticism.

"More than half of our teaching is devoted to history, theory, and criticism," says Bob Withycombe. The department offers a strong academic slate that touches on virtually every field of study - from politics, to sociology, to philosophy, to literature, to science. Students examine debates on U.S. domestic and foreign policy, speeches on the role of sexuality in contemporary society, the writings of Nietzsche and other philosophers, literary interpretations, scientific communications, and so on.

Studies in rhetoric, according to one department mission statement, "fuel the College dialogue on social, political, and academic issues and help to nourish a vibrant and intellectually stimulating liberal arts tradition."

Classes range from Survey of Western Rhetorical Theory to Rhetorical Study of Kenneth Burke (one of the 20th century's leading thinkers on rhetoric), and include:

  • Rhetorical Explorations: Gender, Class, and Race;
  • Persuasion, Agitation, and Social Movements;
  • Argument in Law, Politics, and Society;
  • Special Topics - Freedom of Speech; and
  • Special Topics - Background of African-American Protest Rhetoric.

Since fall semester 1998, students have been able to minor in rhetoric and public address. They also can create their own majors by combining their rhetoric work with classes in another department. For example, Karen Skantze, '98, completed a major in political and rhetorical analysis focusing her research on the Communication Decency Act. David Kearney, also a 1998 graduate, earned a minor in rhetoric, and for his honors thesis in his major, philosophy, wrote about the rhetoric employed by Socrates in Plato's Gorgias.

Learning How to "Stand up and Give and Argument"

While Whitman College experiences a rebirth of the study of rhetoric, first-year students continue to rise before their classmates with trembling notecards to present The Speech. Courses in public speaking and intensive preparation for intercollegiate forensics remain primary components of the department of rhetoric and public address.

From how to prepare, present, and evaluate a good speech to what makes a good argument, students learn to gather information, organize their thoughts, and express themselves in an effective manner. They practice formulating and responding to argument, debating, and analyzing various kinds of oral communication.

"Students become involved in intensive research. They are taught to prepare quality arguments," says Jim Hanson, director of forensics. Hanson, who teaches the public address classes, notes that public address courses are "not just about 'talking better.' Our courses are, at heart, about content and presentation."

"Public address is taken by all kinds of students," Withycombe adds. "They consider it good preparation for orals, for one thing. But there's also the tradition that you shouldn't graduate from Whitman unless you can stand up and give an argument.

"The department is working on building this sense of the importance and urgency of taking rhetoric and public address courses," he says.

Inside a Classical Building: The Art of Rhetoric Meets the Cyber-world

A stately building of Georgian revival architecture, an elegant example of neoclassical style, a three-story atrium rising to a stained-glass skylight - and in the rooms beyond the white pilasters and railings? Beyond the sedate carpet and plush chairs of the lobby?

Inside the Frances Geiger Hunter Conservatory, students are speaking with Jack Blackstock, '81, a securities analyst with Donaldson Lufkin and Jennrette in New York. Giving advice about potential careers on Wall Street, Blackstock answers questions, directing his remarks to individuals in the room as well as to the whole group. Blackstock, however is in New York, and his visit, arranged by the Whitman Career Center, is by video conference.

This is just one example of the many new activities going on in Whitman's restored music conservatory, now housing the Center for Communication Arts and Technology.

In the state-of-the art video conferencing room where the students spoke with Blackstock, people can converse with each other over distance, face-to-face in "real time." While that room, on Hunter's lower level, accommodates 18 people, larger groups conduct video conferences in the Ruth Baker Kimball Theatre just off the atrium.

During the fall semester, several faculty members took advantage of these facilities - and the College's new Hewlett grant, designed to diversify students' multicultural experience using video conferencing. Among them were Lynette Cook Francis, who connected her education class on language and diversity with James Ransome, an African American illustrator of children's books, and Deborah Hopkinson, whose class, Critical Reading in Children's Literature, visited with Donald Bartlette, a Native American educator.

Other professors have been setting up video conferences for their classes during the spring semester while also looking forward to such contact with colleagues far and wide. Video conferencing offers many possibilities - an intercollegiate faculty forum, a College governing board meeting, interviews with prospective faculty members, and more.

Three floors above the video conferencing room, students and faculty work in the new Multimedia and Computer Graphics Laboratory. During the fall, for example, athletic director Juli Dunn scanned photos and created graphics for the athletic department web page, geology students printed conference posters, students designed and edited a Women's Center journal, and professor Keiko Hara's drawing class created multimedia displays using video, audio, and graphics.

"The flagship of the lab is the new Avid Xpress digital video editing station. This station is capable of creating broadcast quality videos," says Jim Cunningham, a multimedia and computer specialist who manages and coordinates use of the Hunter facility and its equipment. Other impressive instruments equip the lab as well, he says: for starters, two Avid Cinema digital video-editing stations, each with a flatbed scanner, Zip drives, Jaz drives, a CD burner, and a film recorder for creating 35mm slide shows from computer images.

Also in Hunter Conservatory is a rhetoric and public address laboratory made up of several completely-equipped rooms. A large classroom on the lower floor contains a projection screen and sound system as well as a video camera, projector, networked computer, VCR, and audio amplifier. Students and instructors can not only view and evaluate their presentations but also enhance them with images and information from the Web and from such applications as PowerPoint. Two other classrooms on the lower floor also are wired for multimedia use and video projection.

Whitman's champion debate and speech competitors use these facilities as well as a suite of computer and video-equipped rooms on the third floor (see "Best All-Around Team," page 11).

Not just speakers but writers as well enter the wide, wood-paneled doors of Hunter Conservatory. The building houses the Writing Center, where, from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. most days, student consultants offer tips on good writing and help their classmates solve writing problems. The center offers 16 laptops for check-out to any spot in the building. There are network ports and a printer, and a ceiling-mounted video projector can be used for computer- or network-based presentations, to show videos, or to project "hard-copy" text.

Inside Hunter, also, is the home of Whitman's Instructional Multimedia Services, an updated version of the time-honored "AV center." Its collection of equipment includes video projectors, VCRs, TV monitors, DVD and laserdisc equipment, photo CD players, and document cameras. These cameras are used in conjunction with video equipment to capture the image of an object, ranging from a photograph to a geologic sample, and project it on a screen as part of a presentation or share it with a video-conferencing party.

Many faculty members consider these video projection and multimedia resources "powerful teaching and learning tools," notes Cunningham, and some instructors already use them on a daily basis. Classroom video projectors include built-in stereo speakers, making them suitable for showing movies and displaying World Wide Web sites that include audio clips.

The most powerful video projector on campus is located in the Kimball Theatre. According to Cunningham it can project "a bright, sharp image up to 15 feet wide." Kimball Theatre "is wired for any kind of multimedia you can concoct," he adds. "It's very complex."

In sharp contrast to the advanced technology is the auditorium's decor, restored to its early 20th-century ambiance, from the soft glow of its aisle lights to its leaded glass skylight. In addition to video conferencing, Kimball hosts many kinds of programs. So far, the Cinema Arts film series, Renaissance Faire films, Whitman singing groups The Testostertones and The Sirens of Swank, the Late Night Theatre Group, the Majoring in the Rest of Your Life series, Visitors Day presentations, and faculty forums have been featured.

In Kimball Theatre video images are projected on a screen that pulls down above a small Grecian stage. The scene is a metaphor for all of Hunter Conservatory, where technology and a liberal arts education are integrated. When students and faculty enter this hall - the second oldest building on Whitman's campus - they venture into a new kind of teaching and learning center - the only one of its kind in the Northwest and perhaps in the nation.