Studying Rhetoric During the Civil Rights: An Interview with Dr. Davis Houck

Walking into Dr. Davis Houck’s office is like walking into your favorite coffee shop. There’s a couch on the left wall that you sink into as you sit down, framed images scattered across all the walls of the office, and books littering every possible inch of space. The hallway it sits in is a large U, and because it sits in the corner of the U, the office has two large windows that let in plenty of light no matter what time of day it is. As I sat down with Dr. Houck, he explained the significance of the images hanging on his wall. The photo was donated to Dr. Houck by the Sims family after some of his students created an award-winning documentary in 2016 called 641 Muriel Court.  The family donated that picture so that Dr. Houck and the students involved so that they could know the faces and names of the people that they did the documentary on. But woven into the family’s story is a rather surprising person who Dr. Houck told me a little more about.

“If you stand up, I’ll show it to you. That picture on the wall right there, that family, that is the Sims family. Three of them were murdered shortly after that picture was taken, and the first suspect was C.A. Roberts.”

Roberts was a pastor in Tallahassee at the First Baptist Church, and how Dr. Houck came to find out about Roberts is an interesting story.

“When I was doing research in archives around the country, one of the archives I went to was the Southern Baptist Archive in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a huge archive, and sure enough, they had a folder on civil rights.  So I’m going through it and behold there’s this sermon from Tallahassee. I just grabbed it even though I had no idea who the pastor was or any idea about it. It turned out that it was a sermon by C.A. Roberts Jr., the minister at First Baptist Church here in Tallahassee. He gave a really interesting speech on the split in his church over integration. It was an all-white church of about 4,000 members. He ended up doing the right thing at one point, but this sermon is this long story about the integration of First Baptist Church.”

The importance of rhetoric in the civil rights movement is something that Dr. Houck has been passionate about since his first years in college.

IMG_1176“When I was a first-semester freshman at the College of Wooster and was looking to fill out my schedule, a friend recommended that I take Dr. Yvonne Williams’ Introduction to Black Studies course.  I’m so glad I did as that course opened my eyes to an entirely new world of American history—a history that I’d grown up in but had never been taught.  From those small seeds that Dr. Williams planted in 1985 grew an interest in a subject that hardly seemed real at times, such were the countless injustices visited upon black children, women, and men in our country. I got to say a long-delayed “thank you” to Dr. Williams in 2009, dedicating my book on women and the civil rights movement to her.

Much of my initial interest derived from the fact of the constant injustices that were never addressed or addressed so many years later.  Of course, as a rhetorician, I was also fascinated by the amazing oratory that propelled the movement.  We’ve all heard Dr. King and Malcolm X at the dais, but there were countless activists doing the hard rhetorical work of the movement in communities across the country, not just the Deep South.”

After doing so much research for his books, you would think that Dr. Houck might have had enough of the stories of injustices that plague the civil rights movement and those that fought for freedom, but to him, it’s quite the opposite. Finding and telling those little-known stories are in fact what keeps him interested in a topic he’s been focused on for quite some time now.

“Professionally, finding those speeches by local activists has been a major passion of mine for the past 10 years, searching in archives, libraries, newspapers, and out-of-print publications that fill out our very incomplete understanding of how the movement really moved.  I’m involved just now in telling the story of Fannie Lou Hamer to public school teachers in Mississippi in order to make her part of the K-12 school curriculum.  Our team is also working on an hour-long documentary, funded principally by the Kellogg Foundation, in which Mrs. Hamer tells her story entirely in her own words.  So much of our civil rights history disappeared upon utterance decades ago simply because many activists didn’t have local or national media following them; as such, reconstructing what they said is really difficult.

Personally, I’ve been involved with our local Boys and Girls Clubs of the Big Bend and know what difference volunteering makes.  Watching a young child flourish, gain confidence, learn their local history, and become a citizen is so important—and so rewarding.  My personal and professional lives are beginning to merge with the Fannie Lou Hamer project in ways I’d never given much thought to teaching often disadvantaged children about a person in their own community from whom they can draw great strength and courage has been a real joy, and one that we’ll continue in 2019 and beyond.  Check us out at fannielouhamerdocumentary.com”

I did just that after our initial interview and found a captivating video celebrating what would have been Ms. Hamer’s 100th birthday. The message is moving, but if you look closely enough you’ll notice both past and present images intertwined to tell a visual story to accompany the speech Ms. Hamer is giving in the background.

“[Fannie Lou Hamer] spoke as a prophetic voice in the 60’s, and you can kind of overlay her voice with a lot of the stuff that’s going on today. Just in terms of the generalities though, not the specifics. She’s talking to a very specific issue in the 60s, but her whole thing was that until she got her freedom nobody else was going to have theirs. In other words, either we rise altogether or we don’t rise at all. She would probably look at us today and say we’re really fracturing and losing too much of what we have in common.”

Along with the documentary of Ms. Hamer, Dr. Houck has published several books about the stories of other individuals during the civil rights period. One of these books is about Emmett Till, a young man who was tragically murdered at the age of 14 after being accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store. Published in 2008, “Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press” analyzes the media’s reaction to the lynching of young Till.

“I found Emmett Till’s story early in my academic career.  I’d heard his name whispered enough, with knowing looks, that my curiosity was piqued.  As a white American growing up in Reagan’s America, you simply didn’t know Till’s name or his story.  And so I knew nothing of his awful story for far too long.  Once I did learn a bit of it, of course, I was left with more questions than answers: what happened to the men who murdered and kidnapped him?  Why weren’t they convicted? What happened to Emmett’s mom, Mamie Till?  What became of the people and places instrumental to his story?  Once I began taking my students there, and meeting men and women in the Mississippi Delta involved in the case, at that point I was hooked—my students, too!”

Dr. Houck even created an app around Till’s story, a sort of treasure map of over 50 different locations that all have some sort of relation to Till’s story.

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“We wanted to reach the next generation of school kids—through the medium that they are most familiar with, in a word, their phones.  I’d seen on Facebook, of all places, that Google had a “field trip” app and it looked like the Till story would be a perfect home for it.  We reached out, they said yes, and off we went.  The challenge was finding 50 locations in the Delta related to the story—that took a bit of creativity, and some major sleuthing—since Google, later Niantic Labs, needed exact GPS coordinates for all the locations.  One of our major finds during the research was a 1955 phone book from Greenwood, MS!  We hope that when the major motion picture on Till drops in 2019, tourists will use our app to help make sense of the Delta landscape.”

So how did Dr. Houck, a young man from Ohio who got his B.A. at the College of Wooster, his M.A. at the University of California in Rhetoric and Communication, and then his Ph.D. at Penn State University in Speech Communication, land himself in Tallahassee? Well, his journey to teaching itself was largely by accident, if you ask him.

“I come from a family of engineers and artists, not teachers and professors.  But I had a very influential professor as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster (in Wooster, Ohio) who showed me the big wide world of rhetoric and convinced me that I had some talent for the subject.  Once I was in graduate school at U.C. Davis, and had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant, that experience in the classroom was really exhilarating and showed me the next steps.

I started my career at FAU in 1996, after finishing my Ph.D. at Penn State.  As much as I liked that first job and really loved the students in South Florida, living on top of people wasn’t my thing, long-term.  So when a job came open at FSU, I was fortunate to get the offer and immediately took to the area.  While it’s not Ohio, its rhythms and space are much more in keeping with what I grew up with and what I like.

I should also say how important Mark Zeigler and Marilyn Young were to my interview in April of 1999; they were great hosts and wonderful proponents for being a Seminole!”

And Dr. Houck’s favorite part of teaching at FSU?

“Teaching students is always the best part of my job, sharing my world with them, but also learning their stories, too.  A good teacher listens to a student’s story and folds it back into the subject under discussion. That’s challenging because it’s happening in real time, but so rewarding for everyone in that class.  Those experiences also encourage other students to share their stories, creating an electric teaching environment where we learn from each other—rather than from some dopey and inert PowerPoint slide.

Another favorite part of my job is getting to know so many other parts of the university, away from my home “silo” in the School of Communication.  I’ve been fortunate to work with our talented library staff in creating the Emmett Till Archive as well as the brand new Civil Rights Institute; with the team that evaluates our incredible undergraduates applying for the Truman Scholarship; I am even doing some work in media relations with the men’s basketball team—each of these experiences, and many others, makes my job so interesting and rewarding.”

 

 

 

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