Carnegie Mellon University

Strategies for Performing Citizenship: Rhetorical Citizenship and the Black Freedom Movement

Author: Derek G. Handley 
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

My dissertation examines the rhetorical and discursive strategies embraced by African Americans during the 1950s and 60s in their attempts to protect their communities from urban renewal. While many rhetoric scholars tend to focus on citizenship as deliberative democracy, my research examines citizenship as acts of resistance for African Americans.  Neighborhood organizations such as Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal in Pittsburgh and the North Side Community Inventory Conference in Milwaukee used acts of citizenship to simultaneously resist urban renewal policies and to demand better housing. In this rhetorical history, I use rhetorical, narrative, and discourse analysis to examine articles, editorials, organizational memos, letters and government documents written from 1945-1970 in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

My analysis reveals that (1) a “master narrative” of urban renewal was created by federal, state, and city officials to implement urban renewal projects, and (2) African American residents in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee used a cluster of rhetorical strategies that incorporated counternarratives,  rhetorics of place, and rhetorical education to increase agency in a struggle for power with municipalities over the future of their neighborhoods.  This research uncovers the residents’ abilities to make their own rhetorical choices and highlights their struggles to acquire expanded rights and privileges, illuminating in the process the complex intersections of race, place, and power in Northern cities during the mid-twentieth century.

I conclude by arguing that the strategies of civic resistance were rooted in cultural rhetorical traditions, and that they provide a better understanding of how political community building occurs within social movements.  My research intervenes in arguments surrounding the origin of rhetorical agency as residing with the speaker/writer. Adopting an African American Rhetoric perspective to examining agency shows that scholars’ focus on the individual has left the manner in which agency is circulated within social movements understudied. This approach focuses the analysis on the distribution of agency, opening a new direction for studying rhetorical tactics within social movements.