Rhea Estelle Lathan Highlights Lesser-Known Perspectives in Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955-1967


Throughout her academic career, Rhea Estelle Lathan has been a strong advocate for African American literacy, and her scholarly studies on the subject jelled in the fall of 2015. That's when Lathan's book Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955-1967 became available through the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), an achievement that beat the organization's steep odds for publication. NCTE's acceptance rate for manuscript submissions is about 5 percent, Lathan says, and just two books a year are published in its Studies in Writing and Rhetoric series. In addition, NCTE featured Freedom Writing on its website from December 2015 through summer 2016.

Lathan's scholarly focus on African American literacy began with her PhD dissertation titled Writing a Wrong: The Case of African American Adult Literacy Action in South Carolina, 1957-1962. Data she collected during the process of earning her PhD helped form the basis for Freedom Writing, although the purpose of her book is to "tell a story," she says.


One function of that storytelling is to reconceptualize literacy, using the term "gospel literacy" as a way to begin that process. One of her goals in the book is to show that defining and acknowledging literacy within the African American community should extend beyond conventional methods and approaches.

"I want people to look at literacy as intellectual acts more broadly, that it doesn't happen just within the boundaries or confines of the four walls of the ivory tower," Lathan says. "I think about what bell hooks says when she talks about how the kid on the street corner who is arguing and debating back and forth is doing the same kinds of critical thinking and thought processing that a person sitting in a graduate class is doing. I want African American ways of knowing to gain more respect."

When Lathan talks about gospel literacy, she first describes the role music, especially gospel music, has played in the African American community and how she looks at it through a different perspective.

"Most times when you hear people talk about black music or black aesthetics, they say it's all performative, it's all emotional," Lathan says. "I'm looking for a way to think of it as embodied, that the cognitive and emotive are together - you don't have to separate them. Music and spirituality were important for African Americans during any kind of activist movement, but the music wasn't just about singing, it was also a way of learning and of knowing."

Gospel literacy, Lathan writes in her book, contains four ruling concepts, similar to gospel music: acknowledging the burden; call and response; bearing witness; and finding redemption. She discusses all four in separate chapters of Freedom Writing, but she says the one covering call and response was the section most people talked about with her.

"People look at call and response as a rote activity - you call out and I respond - but I break it apart and look at it as an intellectual activity," she says. "The act requires thinking and it requires knowledge of culture, knowledge of what is appropriate, of what the person is doing. There also is freedom and agency to it, so that when you push back, you're not necessarily saying, 'No, I don't want to respond that way, I'm going to respond this way,' you're saying 'Yeah, I accept it, and I'm going this way.' There's a thinking process that's involved."

In her research, Lathan delved into the Greek origins of the word gospel, and points out in the book's Introduction that the current definition emerged when translators converted the Bible from Latin to English.

"They changed the Latin term bona annutiatio or bonus numtius into gospel, meaning 'God's story,'" Lathan says. "However, I use the term gospel as defined in its original incarnation of 'good story' or 'good news.' I want people to understand that gospel literacy is not a religious ideology, it's a spiritual and intellectual process.

"It's not just for Christianity and people who believe in a being greater than themselves, it's about the collective."

Lathan uses this foundation to anchor her main body of research to highlight the lesser-known stories of Citizenship Schools, which formed in the mid-1950s to foster adult literacy in African American communities in the South. From the outset of Freedom Writing, Lathan delivers to readers the argument that the real narrative is more complex than the way historians traditionally portray it. She uses archival material and personal interviews to explain that while people such as Miles Horton, Esau Jenkins, and Septima Clark were important to the literacy movement that gained traction within the larger civil rights movement happening at the time, other voices need to be heard as well.

"We don't have to look far to locate nostalgic movies or documentary films about the brave Freedom Riders, courageous Montgomery bus boycotters, or heroic Selma marchers," she writes in her Introduction. "A more complex narrative restores participant voices to the historical record. This occurs when we listen carefully to the people dedicated to both teaching and learning."

In Freedom Writing, Lathan writes about other literacy activists such as Alice Wine, Candy and Guy Carawan, and Bernice Robinson, who Lathan says developed the curriculum for the first Citizenship Schools sessions. Highlander Folk School in Tennessee had the schools first, but Ku Klux Klan members in the area accused the school of race integrating and possessing alcohol, which brought fines and the loss of their property. They reorganized in Seas Islands, South Carolina, before Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over administration of the program.

Part of the reason that others may have minimized Robinson's contributions, Lathan says, is because "she did not represent the politics of respectability."

"Robinson, who was Septima Clark's cousin, was a beer-drinking, swearing, divorced, unwed mother beautician - she cussed out MLK," Lathan says. "With a revisionist history, we know that there were many more people who were working for social activism and social justice."

Clark and Robinson worked for a short time with the SCLC, but "Robinson didn't like the bureaucracy. She didn't like rules," Lathan says.

Robinson passed away before Lathan started her research for Freedom Writing, but she was able to personally interview several people who were central to the telling of her story, including the Carawans and Anderson Mack, to name a few. Mack, especially, provided Lathan with a voice and a perspective that proved more powerful than any information she collected from her archival research. In fact, Mack, who at age 22 was the youngest participant in the schools, was not mentioned in any of the archives Lathan studied, but she luckily heard about him through other means.

"Just listening to the stories and seeing his expressions" defined the difference between meeting in person and reading archives, Lathan says. "A couple of times he had me turn off the tape recorder because he wanted to talk to me off record. I was able to get information from him that I never would have been able to get from archives."

For example, he told Lathan that his participation in the schools was because wanted to hold onto his property. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, an X was no longer an acceptable signature on official documents, so Mack needed to learn to write. He went on to start a pre-kindergarten center in the 1960s and '70s, and he became a community leader.

Lathan writes about many stories similar to Mack's, and does it in a way that garnered praise from her peers. Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and professor emerita of English at Stanford University, writes that Freedom Writing is an "irresistible behind-the-scenes look at one of America's most powerful learning environments, created by individuals drawn together by their deep desire to make America a true democracy. This is a powerful, in-depth, and deeply moving story about the power of starting small but believing big." Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Chair of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adds that "literacy has always been about more than reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It has been about liberation and self-determination. In this volume, Lathan captures the very soul of African American literacy during the crucial years of the modern Civil Rights Movement."

Despite the breadth of coverage in Freedom Writing, Lathan says she had to cut the length of the book, which left material for her next project, a book titled Crucibles of Difference. That study will focus on black women during the civil rights era who were not part of the "politics of respectability," Lathan says.

"Some of these people do not fit into the neat confines of the respectable black women," she says. "They were not Christian, they were not married, but they were still doing some of the same activist work. They were handing out fliers, registering people to vote, what the large majority of people who were working toward civic inclusion were doing. But we don't get to hear their stories.

"I want to write about their writing and the intellectual work they were doing, the literacy activism they were doing. They were accessing knowledge in order to change things in ways that went beyond the marches."