Argument and social change: the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement

Pictured: David A. Frank, professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon. Photo courtesy of

By Colton Williams 
Executive Editor

“Rhetoric can help you, as students, change this world,” began David A. Frank, professor of rhetoric and inaugural dean of the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. Frank visited Sewanee to deliver a lecture entitled, “James Blue’s The March, the Long Civil Rights Movement, and Martin Luther King’s August 28, 1963 March on Washington Address.” 

Frank, an eclectic scholar who has conducted research on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the rhetoric of foreign affairs, and the rhetoric of Barack Obama and racial reconciliation, recently received an Andrew Mellon Fellowship to use James Blue’s 1964 documentary about the March on Washington in order to examine racism and anti-racism in American history. 

Sean O’Rourke, professor of rhetoric and American Studies ─ who will have his own book on the rhetoric of civil rights, Like Wildfire: The Rhetoric of Civil Rights Sit-Ins, published next year ─ introduced Frank as a “national world-caliber speaker, teacher, and scholar, and also someone who has been my friend for forty years.” 

“David Frank has spent most of his life talking about, writing about, and teaching about how we should discuss difficult concepts and controversies,” O’Rourke said. 

Frank’s lecture was centered around Blue’s documentary, and credits the powerful film with several important developments in the history of civil rights in America: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Martin Luther King Jr. receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Blue, a graduate of the University of Oregon ─ like both O’Rourke and Frank ─ worked for the United States Information Service, which distributed the film to over 83 countries worldwide. 

“Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Frank said. “And he did so in part because of this film. This film was distributed throughout the world, and so people learned about Martin Luther King Jr. because of this film produced by a speech major.”

The lecture was layered, focusing both on the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and specifically his speech at the March on Washington, as well as how that rhetoric was framed and communicated by James Blue to the rest of the world. 

“It chronicles the day of the March on Washington,” Frank said. “There’s a crescendo and a climax with Martin Luther King Jr.’s great ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and then the film ends.”

Frank argues that this is purposeful, and that like all great rhetoric, Blue’s film had an argument. In fact, Frank discussed the criticism of the film, and that no less than four times did Lyndon Johnson have discussions in his office about the film and its contents. There were many southern congressmen and senators who opposed the distribution of the film worldwide, and although King’s speech made great social impact domestically, Blue’s film was not able to be seen in the United States until 1987. 

“Martin Luther King Jr. made sure to stress the importance of oratory and rhetoric and persuasion rather than the use of violence,” Frank said, and Blue’s film presents an argument for the very act of rhetorical argument itself.

Knowing his audience was mostly non-American, and seeking to present the Civil Rights Movement to a Cold War world, Blue often stopped his narration of the documentary completely, allowing the images and words of the movement to speak for themselves: black men and women and their white supporters preparing lunches for the march and traveling to Washington, Marian Anderson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and of course King’s seminal address. 

“In no way are we near solving these issues, but we’ve made significant progress because of the Civil Rights Movement,” Frank said. He credits that in no small part to the intentional rhetoric of King and other activists, and the presentation of the movement to the rest of the world by James Blue.