The limits of civility in the civil rights and Black Power movements : three African-American women's autobiographies
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Rhetoricians have long praised argumentation as a productive alternative to violence, and while I agree that it can be such an alternative, my dissertation aims to complicate our understanding of both violence and coercion by illumination how the strictures of civility limit the rhetoric of dissent. This study makes two main arguments, 1), that the dominant narrative of the civil rights and Black Power movements has been insufficiently challenged by rhetoricians, and 2), that this lack can be explained in part by these scholars’ preference for civility and decorum over coercion in persuasion. I argue that both the civil rights and Black Power movements share similarities both tactically and philosophically. Looking beyond assessing these movements in terms of their alleged levels of civility allows us more fully to account for the complexity of their rhetorical situations. I use black women’s autobiographies as my focus because they allow a glimpse into the quotidian nature of the civil rights and Black Power movement’s struggles, one that lies on the margin of the media spotlight on movement leadership. In addition, these autobiographies unveil the multiple audiences activist rhetors faced in ways that major speeches, penned and delivered by men, cannot.