A rhetorical digital humanities project of the "Fill Up the Jails" public speech

Rhetorical Context of the Speech

1957-1960: Lead up to the speech
February 16, 1960: Précis of a Speech
1960 and Beyond: Rhetorical consequences

1957-1960: Lead up to the speech

The 1957 Royal Seven Sit-in, as it came to be known, began when Reverend Moore, accompanied by six fellow church members entered the Royal Ice Cream parlor located in a building on the corner of Roxboro and Dowd streets in Durham, NC.  They sat down together and ordered ice cream in the section of the establishment posted as “whites only.”  The owner called the Durham police, who arrested the seven protesters for trespassing.  Ultimately, an all-white jury found them guilty and the presiding judge levied fines totaling $433.24.  Though challenged all the way to the Unites States Supreme Court — which refused to hear the case — the charges were upheld and reaffirmed in subsequent North Carolina State Supreme Courts’ rulings.

Moore had previously challenged racial discrimination in Durham by petitioning the Durham City Council to end segregation at a public library and a city-owned theater.  After those petitions failed, he moved toward non-violent direct action, attempting to enter a whites-only swimming pool in Durham.  These previous failures convinced him of the need for coordinated non-violent direct action focused on strategic targets — targets which would serve to make visible to blacks as well as whites, the problems of segregation. Virginia Williams, another of the Royal Seven, indicated that they chose their target with at least some of these goals in mind:  “We could have picked from any establishment….They were all segregated.  The reason we chose this one was it was located in the heart of the black community.”

Even though this was not Reverend Moore’s first attempt to challenge racial discrimination, and despite his thoughtful planning, the local community was not sympathetic.  The majority of the local papers buried the story, the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs both frowned on such direct action, and the resulting scandal was about the group’s tactics rather than the dehumanizing and unequal effects of segregation they were attempting to make visible.  Indeed, the Royal Ice Cream sit-in not only provoked controversy in the white community; it created consternation among black citizens, many of whose members viewed the protesters not as freedom fighters but as trouble makers.

For much of the 1950s (and despite his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott), MLK shared this negative sentiment toward non-violent direct action.  Earlier, King and Moore were fellow students at Boston University where King founded a discussion group of Negro students at the university.  The group was decidedly not a venue for political discussion or civil rights activism, particularly when compared with the activities of Moore and another classmate, George Thomas, who made attempts at direct action in Boston.  The tension between these two approaches as represented by King and Moore, was maintained and even magnified throughout the civil rights struggle, as significant numbers of African Americans opposed agitation, direct action, or violence and followed King and others who focused on oratorical agitation — speeches, rallies, and petitions for redress.

Taylor Branch argues that King’s efforts in the 1950s resulted in great fanfare but little substantive change: “this conversion approach had brought King the orator’s nectar — applause, admiration, and credit for quite a few tearful if temporary changes of heart — but in everyday life Negroes remained a segregated people, invisible or menial specimens except for celebrity aberrations such as King himself” (Branch 1998, 24).  The Royal Seven were left to fight the court battles, as well as the battle of public opinion by themselves.  The group picked up a few supporters, such as their lawyer, Floyd McKissick, but seemed to have accomplished very little else in terms of making visible the injustices of segregation.

McKissick and Moore were surprised then, when, on February 1, 1960, students in Greensboro started a firestorm by sitting at the “wrong” (whites only) lunch counter.  McKissick, Moore, and a few others drove to Greensboro the evening after these sit-ins started, held trainings, and began developing a strategy to help the sit-ins spread (Davidson 2010). Moore reached out to Martin Luther King, Jr. and on February 16, with the sit-ins dramatically raising visibility and showing potential to have a national impact, King accepted Moore’s invitation to put his blessing on the movement (Davidson 2010)with a speech in Durham at the White Rock Baptist Church. According to Branch, by that point King begrudgingly acknowledged that direct action was the best way to move toward desegregation: “race was too intractable to be repaired by the inspiration of any orator. Only by slow, wrenching concession could someone like King admit that eloquence was weak even when buttressed by rank and education” (1998, 24-25).

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February 16, 1960: Précis of the Speech

King’s speech in Durham, held at the White Rock Baptist Church, was titled “A Creative Protest,” and came to be known for King’s groundbreaking endorsement of non-violent confrontation: “Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South. Maybe it will take this willingness to stay in jail to arouse the dozing conscience of our nation” (Speech reprinted in Carson et al. 2005). The jails were soon filled with protesters devoted to non-violent direct action, and the rhetorical strategy of evoking common humanity through showing in addition to telling, helped move the country toward significant change.

King’s embrace of nonviolent direct action, in Moore’s city and at Moore’s request (and NOT in Greensboro, the location of the then-current sit-ins), was a significant event.  It was a public admission by King that nonviolent direct action was appropriate and even necessary to advance the cause of equality and freedom for all:

You have given an additional death blow to the once prevalent idea that the Negro prefers segregation. You have also made it clear that we will not be satisfied with token integration, for token integration is nothing but a new form of discrimination covered up with the niceties of complexity.  Separate facilities, whether in eating places or public schools are inherently unequal (“A Creative Protest” in Carson, et al. 2005).

Both the Royal Seven and the Greensboro sit-ins provided King with many resources for rhetorically creating networks of particularized grievances and linking them to other protests, events, and aims. In using his speech at White Rock Church to do so, he also, in turn, nurtured and catalyzed the emerging movement. For instance, King addressed the issue of particularity and its significance to successful direct action as follows: “You have rightly chosen to follow the path of non-violence.  As we protest, our ultimate aim is not to defeat or humiliate the white man but to win his friendship and understanding…. We have a moral obligation to remind him that segregation is wrong.”

Further, in a passage understood to be a direct reference to the Greensboro sit-in, but in which (based on this rhetorical history of the events and discourses that led to Moore’s invitation to King to give the speech in Durham at the White Rock Baptist Church) King might also have been referring to the Royal Seven, he exhorted his audience: “Let us protest with the ultimate aim of being reconciled with our white brother. As we sit down quietly to request a cup of coffee, let us not forget to drink from that invisible cup of love.” King urges his listeners to see the people with whom they struggle as persons to be respected and loved even as they diligently request, by their non-violent direct actions, to be respected and treated with love in return: “and so I would urge you to continue your just struggle until the people with whom you trade will respect your person as much as they respect your dollar.” Thus, King, whose speech employs what were heretofore nascent possibilities, provides a rhetorical blueprint for acknowledging and making visible particularized grievances of individual citizens along with possible ways of sharing and acting together in social space, and merging them into a kind of unified trajectory.

The Royal Seven sit-in (and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Greensboro Sit-in and the others that preceded and followed these) drew from extant strategies and tactics largely left un-tested or un-settled. The sit-ins did so by rhetorically enacting what democracy meant or, alternatively, what democracy did not mean for African Americans in North Carolina, where the ideal of democracy fell well short of the practice. The sit-ins showed these realities, made them visible, in addition to talking about them. As King noted, “In this period when civil rights legislation hangs in an uncertain balance in the congress – when the recalcitrance of some public officials in the South instills us with frustration and despondency, the spectacular example of determined and dedicated young people demanding their rights,” made all the difference. Indeed, he exhorted them as follows: “You have taken hold of the tradition of resolute non-violent resistance and you are carrying it forward toward the end of bringing all of us closer to the day of full freedom” (“A Creative Protest” in Carson et.al. 2005).

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1960 and Beyond: Rhetorical Consequences

The relationship between oratory and action, between changes of heart and changes in lived, day-to-day experiences has long been examined, articulated, challenged, and denied.  Yet, as King’s speech at the White Rock Baptist Church indicates, public address is a significant part of a larger set of conversations, actions, and relationships that ultimately lead to changes in both hearts and minds, thinking and acting.

With the sit-ins in North Carolina, the seemingly inconsequential everyday oppression endured by black citizens became a particularized example of systematic racial oppression. To the extent their actions functioned rhetorically to make visible the everyday consequences of segregation, including the feelings of pleasure and the sites of pleasure denied, the rhetorical trajectory of a larger movement was opened as a network of particularized grievances began to be recognized as a growing and connected trajectory toward (and movement for) freedom. Additionally, the rhetorical consequence of the sit-in, when taken together with MLK’s “Fill Up the Jails speech, indicate the impact of these events and efforts well beyond the movement of the 1950s and 60s. Through studying the speech and the sit-ins that preceded it, we come to understand how the rhetorical trajectory of the movement plays a role not just in informing the present but in commemorating the past, not simply helping us to strategize from within it, but providing a kind of lived experience of the past and its various discourses and images that can inform our present actions.

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