Region and Remembrance: Public Memories of Civil Rights in Greensboro, North Carolina

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Brown, Laura Michael
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 12, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Cheryl Glenn, Dissertation Advisor
  • Cheryl Glenn , Committee Chair
  • Debra Hawhee, Committee Member
  • Jack Selzer, Committee Member
  • Kirt Wilson, Outside Member
  • Stuart Selber, Committee Member
  • rhetoric
  • public memory
  • regionalism
  • civil rights movement
  • greensboro
  • north carolina
Region and Remembrance: Public Memories of Civil Rights in Greensboro, North Carolina asks how powerful ideas about place can shape our public memories. Greensboro, North Carolina has been the site of civil rights victories, most notably the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. It has also been the site of tragedy and racist violence, including a 1979 shooting when KKK members murdered five protesters from the Communist Worker’s Party. During the twentieth century, Greensboro developed a reputation as a progressive Southern city, and that powerful narrative shapes many residents’ perceptions of the city’s civil rights past. At the same time, that narrative suppresses counter-memories. This dissertation explores the relationship between Greensboro’s progressive reputation and its civil rights past by engaging two fundamental questions: How have constructions of regional identity been deployed to shape public memories of civil rights events in Greensboro? Conversely, how do manifestations of public memory sustain or challenge the most prevalent ideas about Greensboro’s regional identity? I take up these questions across analyses of three episodes when public memories of civil rights in Greensboro have been contested. These case studies demonstrate that Greensboro’s progressive regional identity is maintained through a rhetoric of exceptionalism that disconnects the city from its larger contexts and reduces the ability of public memories of Greensboro’s past to speak to contemporary problems of racism and inequality. Attention to regional identity is one way that rhetoricians can examine what gives power to a particular construction of public memory. I argue that region is a tool we can use to explore the complexities of cases of public memory—especially those cases in which multiple versions of memory are competing for traction or significance. Ultimately, this dissertation offers rhetoricians a model for using critical regionalism to analyze public memory conflicts.