Sit-Ins in Knoxville, Tennessee: A Case Study of Political Rhetoric

Article excerpt

Little lunch counter with your many stools,
And your nervous pacing manager fools;
How do you feel amid this confusion and strife?
Do you object to a change inevitable in life?

      What's your stand in this crucial matter?
Little lunch counter with your top full of salt and often sticky,
Many of your managers are now getting tricky;
They close the doors in haste and despair
As soon as some citizens make an appearance there.

      What's your stand in this crucial matter?
What's the solution little roach ridden creature?
What kind of ideas do you have to feature?
Do you suggest that we stand as we patronize?
I'm sure if we did our troubles would be few.

       What's your stand in this crucial matter?
If you could only speak and tell us what you have in mind,
It's almost certain that your suggestion would not be unkind.
" 'The trouble,' " I'm sure you'd say, " 'certainly is not my fault,
And this stupid mess should be brought to a screeching halt.' " (1)

Ode To A Lunch Counter was written by Robert Booker, a student leader and activist during the Knoxville, Tennessee, sit-ins. While the poem has sarcastic overtones, it does bring an awareness of what people will endure because "that's the way it is." Race relations in Knoxville in the late 1950s and 1960s differed from those in other southern cities. Knoxville was not a city in the "deep South," never had many slaves, and only ten percent of the population was African American. The violence encountered by civil rights activists in other southern cities did not take place in Knoxville. Racial discrimination was muted by an overriding paternalism. "You get caught up in things and you go along with it because it's the mood of the time," commented black civil rights activist Reverend Matthew A. Jones, Sr. regarding African Americans' willingness to deal with the paternalistic environment. (2)

The Civil Rights Movement in Knoxville was influenced by the larger Movement, yet it retained distinctive elements that characterized Knoxville in the 1960s. A deeper understanding of the Civil Rights Movement will emerge from investigations into the individual communities in which civil rights protests occurred. The influence, reaction, and motivation for participants in specific communities depended on the political, social, and economic climate of that place at that particular time. While the Movement occurred across the South from the mid 1950s through the 1960s, and inspired protestors throughout the region, it was not homogeneous. Individuals and organizations were not always cohesive. Civil rights organizations and their members had differing reasons for being involved. Membership in a particular organization did not necessitate complete agreement with that organization's methods or goals. What is important to remember is that individuals and organizations participated because of a variety of influenc es. This research looks specifically at these influences in one community, particularly the political rhetoric that affected the Knoxville protests. While the Knoxville sit-in story deserves to be heard, this research looks at the effects of local political rhetoric on the non-violent movement in Knoxville. Methods of communication, specifically political rhetoric, can not be isolated from particular historical events. By listening to the voices of those involved, we become aware of the importance of language. These voices include segregationists and desegregationists whose rhetoric, while persuasive, was not always successful.

The term political rhetoric often has pejorative overtones. Political is commonly associated with the evils of bureaucracy or a conniving sense of dishonesty. 'Within the context of this essay, political concerns the art of guiding or influencing specific governmental policy. In rhetoric, politically neutral is an oxymoron.

Speech while important is but one aspect of rhetoric, "defined as the human effort to induce cooperation through the use of symbols. …