Department of Communication


Social Movement Rhetoric

Social Movements of the 1960’s



America in the 1960’s: The most active period of social movement rhetoric in the 20th century was the 1960’s. The period roughly begins with a build-up from the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision of 1954. This desegregation decision began the Civil Rights movement. By 1960, multiple movements were gathering steam in the United States. After 1970 and the Kent State killings, social movements began to decline and by the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War in 1975 the most active period was over. Of course, movements continue to our day just as there have always been some active movements in America. But the most active period was over.

Conditions Given Voice in 1960’s Movements:
The rhetoric of the 60s movements had several conditions of the society that it attempted to convert into power for the movement.
1.American Apartheid—despite the ending of slavery in 1865, American culture, particularly in the South, had re-established a cultural system based on racial superiority. Discrimination against non-Euro-Americans and even some ethnic Euro-Americans was common social practice established and promoted by discursive practices. Many movements sought to confront this system.
2.Disparity in Wealth—in 1960 one in five Americans lived in conditions described by the federal government as “poverty.” Many movements were egalitarian (human equality) movements seeking to convert this disparity into support for social change.
3.Institutional Terror—in the midst of the Cold War, large amounts of resources went into building military power. In President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1960 he warned of a “military industrial complex” dedicated to absorbing the wealth of the society into non-productive weapons of war. The conditions of the Cold War also encouraged attention to military structures within established power structures. Some social movements attempted to identify this military power and what they called the diversion of resources into destructive ends. These movements depicted “Amerika” as a militaristic world power, too quick to suppress dissent at home and abroad.
4.Materialism—Social movements of the 1960s were not just about uniting lesser endowed classes of American society. Some of the children of middle and even upper classes were eager participants and often leaders of these movements. They found that the material satisfactions of their wealthy status did not produce satisfaction in their lives. Many social movements addressed non-material issues.

Dominant Rhetoric of the 1960’s:

Rhetoric of the Cold War--the dominant rhetoric opposed the Soviet expansion and consisted of chants of slogans, singing of songs, call-response (audience reaction to speakers), etc. all served to unite the movement, develop a sense of pride in its members and in the US, and serve to energize the members.

Institutional Sites--the two key locations for social movements of the 1960s were the Black churches of the south and college campuses. The Black churches provided a home or base for the Civil Rights movement, and to a lesser extent the Black Power movement. The buildings provided public space for people to gather and for leaders to energize and organize their followers. The college campuses were important because a concentration of movement activists, maintained an idealistic commitment to free speech and novelty of ideas, a focus for resistance. The geographical and institutional campus was not easily controlled and movement, even those attacking their administrations, thrived in this atmosphere.

The mass media of minor importance--1960s movements did not generally use the mass media to diffuse their message. American mass media were controlled by the large institutional powers and did not provide access to the leaders of such movements.

Where the media were important in movements--television was the key as it could disseminate stark visual images that expanded the limits of "direct" experience that rhetorical speakers for the movement could talk about as a common experience for their members. For example, the famous photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a road in Vietnam with flames from an American napalm bomb burning her flesh was stark image of American use of military power. Such images, seen by everyone, became part of a common experience and stuff of rhetorical proof.

The Movements Generated a Rhetoric of Confrontation:

The movements succeeded in countering the co-optation and suppression strategies of the dominant order through the following characteristics:

Physical confrontation--in both violent and non-violent ways; the movements challenged the legitimacy of the established orders. Peaceful lunch hour sit-ins challenged white power; there was threatened vigilante violence from resisting white citizens, and that often lead to police intervention and violence. Laws that kept people from the simple act of eating lunch were demonstrated against. Images of Black Panthers patrolling the streets with automatic weapons and ammunition belts created such fear in law enforcement, that they would invade an apartment in the middle of the night and kill panthers lying asleep in their beds. Such actions, rare that they might be, served as proof that the movement's charges of militarism and violence against the dominant order were given validity by such images.

Rhetorical Confrontation--such strategies as name calling (calling police offers "pigs") polemic rhetoric (constructing the established order as the enemy), as using rhetoric that exaggerated and polarized the agents of the established order (painting the other side in broad stereotypes and all were evil or corrupt). Rhetorical confrontation made compromise with the dominant order unthinkable for those in the movement, and inflamed the agents of the dominant order. Thus inducing the over-response of the dominant order in physical confrontation.

Moralistic Identity—The moral characteristics of American social movements combined with the rhetorical and physical confrontation caused a distinction between the members of the movements and the dominant social establishments. The moralistic language often gave the members a fervent commitment and make compromise with the dominant order seem irresponsible or even wicked.

Iconistic versus Distributed Leadership—there are advantages to a movement having a single authority figure who becomes the symbol of the movement. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship to civil rights would be an example. The inconistic leader attracts the energy of admiring followers and can more easily weld them together into a disciplined source of energy. But single leaders cannot always provide for leadership in diverse localities. Drawing authority to a single leader diminishes the authority of a more widespread leadership structure. In addition, the iconistic leader can die—King is an example—and the movement may lose momentum as no other leader can acquire the same focused power. Distributed leadership prepares movements to diffuse their power throughout society, but no single source of authority for rhetoric is available. Providing coordination, speaking with one voice, becomes more difficult.

The rhetoric of social movements always must work within the conflicting pressures of these tensions noted above. These pressures provide an understanding of how the movement attempt to make or achieve social change.

Goals of the 1960s Social Movements
The 1960s was the richest era of social movements since the 1830s. There were many significant movements active in the decade that dramatically changed many aspects of American life and altered the direction of American political activity. Members often were part of multiple movements but there were also intense followers of particular causes. Among the significant movements were:

Movements for African-American identity and power--this consisted of two basic movements…one for identity and one for integrative power. In short, African-Americans sought a public voice. The Black Power movement was a search for distinctive identity as Black Americans and creating a place for socializing the common experience of oppression. The Civil Rights movement sought to provide access to the ballot box and the economic world that were the sources of power in established American culture.

Peace Movements--In the midst of the Cold War, with the advent of nuclear weapons and the stark reality of body bags returning from Vietnam, a cluster of movements sought to oppose the use of institutional violence by a political power. This cluster begin with the "Ban the Bomb" movement of the 1950s, and with the increased American involvement in Vietnam gained massive support and power in opposition to the war.

Women's Movements--Largely those of dominant feminists. These movements moved women from the privacy of their homes and into public life. The commonality of women's experiences became the basis of an identity movement. The unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment movement became an integrative movement for women's access to the economy and to government positions of power.

Lifestyle Movements--A loosely controlled movement based in music and lifestyle; liberalized by the rigidity of American culture. These movements created many new forms of expression (clothing and hairstyle to name two), and changed many of the ways Americans lives their lives, living arrangements and clothing styles. Many of these movements were about the rules by which communication could be transacted in the culture. But basic issues of what sort of deviant cultural practices would be tolerated were also at stake.

Institutional Reform Movements--From churches to the system of higher education, the 1960s was a decade marked by many movements that sought fundamental change in power relationships in institutions beyond politics. A traditional source of such movements in the past was labor unions. But this time they were left out of this era. Still, changes swept through other institutions of American life. Many of these changes were egalitarian (human equality), opening the power structure of the institution to broader participation.

Movements for Voice--In the atmosphere of the 1960s, the attraction of a crowd and the power of the bullhorn transformed common experiences of all types into new identities. So strong was the pattern of the social movement that by the 1980s even those who had opposed the social movements of the 1960s--such as the fundamentalist church--often embraced the form and sought to enhance their own power and identity by declaring themselves movements.