Faithful Genres: Rhetorics of the Civil Rights Mass Meeting

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“Faithful Genres” examines how African Americans adapted the genres of the black church during the civil rights movement. Civil rights mass meetings, as the movement’s so-called “energy machine” and “heartbeat,” serve as the project’s central site of inquiry for these meetings were themselves adaptations of the genre of the black church service. The mass meetings served as the space to draw people into the movement, encourage people toward further activism, and testify to anyone watching that the African American community was working toward desegregation, voting rights, and racial equality. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “Through these meetings we were able to generate the power and depth which finally galvanized the entire Negro community.” In these weekly or sometimes even nightly meetings, participants inhabited the familiar genres of the black church, song, prayer, and testimony. As they did, they remade these genres to respond directly to white supremacy and to enact the changes they sought to create.

While scholars have studied the speeches men and women such as King, Ralph Abernathy, and Fannie Lou Hamer delivered at meetings (Wilson; Selby; Holmes; Brooks), scholars have yet to examine how civil rights mass meetings functioned through a range of genres and rhetors. My study addresses this absence and invigorates this discussion to demonstrate how the other meeting genres beyond the speech—song, prayer, and testimony—functioned to create energy, sustenance, and motivation for activists. Examining these collectively enacted genres, I show how rhetors adapted song, prayer, and testimony toward strategic interventions. I also examine how activists took these same genres up outside the meetings to circulate them in broader contexts for new audiences. By recovering and defining the mass meeting as a flexible repertoire of genres and then examining the redeployment of meeting genres outside the meeting, “Faithful Genres” contributes to histories of civil rights and African American rhetorics, genre studies, and histories of religious rhetorics.