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Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

lathan cover middleThe following excerpt is from Rhea Estelle Lathan’s Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955–1967, the latest volume in the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric Series. You can read a previous post from this author here

Singing was one of the creative rhetorical strategies adopted by Civil Rights activists to protest segregation. The various strategies drew heavily on the black church, which provided sanctuary for protest rallies and a venue to plan resistance tactics. Despite the centrality of songs in black social justice protest, however, we have yet to account for their rhetorical appeal or literate power, particularly as a way of knowing.

In 1942, Zora Neale Hurston introduced the idea of complicating perceptions about African American spiritual expressions, framing them as a theoretical concept: “The real spirituals are not really just songs. They are unceasing variations around a theme” (869). Hurston warns us not to reduce African American compositions of expression to rote performance because these activities are taken up with deliberate attention to a history. Engaging Hurston’s gaze, we can see how Alice Wine and other African American freedom crusaders combined song with their liberatory activities and how musical ideologies were an intricate source of black activism.

Keith Gilyard expands this theory, arguing that African American rhetorical strategies, along with sacred activities, are crucial components in African American discourse (“Introduction”).4 From this perspective, we can consider how Alice Wine and other African American activists combined sacred language with secular liberatory activities. An example of this relationship is the way that Citizenship School participants replicated religious services while learning, following the format of basic church services: devotion, sermon, and benediction.

  • The devotional service includes a scripture reading and a series of call-and-response songs followed by a prayer and members testifying or witnessing about an overwhelming or extremely difficult situation.
  • The sermon begins with another reading from the sacred text—often the Bible—and a statement of the sermon’s theme. The preacher teaches the “Word.”
  • Finally, the benediction sends the congregation off to practice what they learned during the session.

This pattern is clear from the first Citizenship School teacher Bernice Robinson’s description of a typical day:

A typical class would begin with devotions. Someone would be assigned to carry on devotions for each class night. This relaxed and warmed up the group. Then homework was checked. Then we would have about thirty minutes of reading. I wrote down each word they had difficulty in pronouncing and used these words during our spelling period, which followed. The definitions of these words were also taught so the students would understand what they were reading. Then we would have a session in arithmetic, using the prices from grocery lists, catalogue orders, etc. Then we would go thru the process of applying for a registration certificate. After which I made assignments for homework. Some nights, to maintain interest and break up the monotony of lessons, I would show a film. Highlander [Folk School] provided us with many films. Guy Carawan, who headed up the music department at Highlander, would come down and would teach singing at the classes and here again we used the words of the songs for reading. The goal of the classes was to create an awareness of the political structure in the local community, across the state, as well as nation [that] controlled funds for education, housing, employment etc. Blacks could not only be knowledgeable as to whom they should contact to eliminate what problems, but they could become candidates for these offices as well.

Relying on weaving together both sacred and secular practices, Robinson opened up a space for a literacy activism that encouraged active literacy. Describing how and why she included worship tools in literacy activism, she explains, “That’s where blacks used to release all of their problems[,] was through their music. They would go into those Praise Houses and shout and talk about their problems through the music. Sort of get it all out of their systems.”