Date of Award

Spring 5-9-2014

Degree Type

Closed Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Lynee Gaillet

Second Advisor

Dr. Mary Hocks

Third Advisor

Dr. Michael Harker

Fourth Advisor

Dr. James Darsey


William Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), an activist and muckraking journalist, focused on social and economic conditions in the South. In seven decades of activism, he fought for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and environmental protections. Kennedy collected oral histories as a folklorist with the Federal Writer’s Project, and he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and worked to get their state charters revoked. This project breaks new ground by bringing to light a neglected aspect of Stetson Kennedy’s work: his years (1943-1947) as the editorial director for the Political Action Committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO-PAC). In this role, Kennedy fought against voting restrictions and informed workers about candidates and voting issues.

This dissertation explores several research questions: How are alphabetic, civic, and critical literacies activated and enhanced through labor rhetoric? In what ways are these three literacies connected? What are the implications of interconnected literate praxis in academic spaces and beyond? The writer employs archival research, primary field research, and critical theory. Using critical theory enables the writer to stake new claims about key concepts: the subject, agency, ideology, discourse, rhetoric, and literacy. This project enriches existing scholarship in rhetoric and composition through focusing on literacy programs in labor movements. Although labor unions have long provided instruction in reading, writing, history, and political economy, little work outside of history and sociology has been done on worker education. Literacy building outside the classroom has received some attention in rhetoric and composition, but the role that unions play in this process has been neglected.

In addition, this rhetorical biography provides an historical account of a writer who helped educate workers largely through the use of dialect, folklore, and other forms of vernacular/working-class discourse. Vernacular discourse must be recovered in order to rectify the privileging of academic/elite discourse and to end the longstanding silence about socioeconomic class in US society. Furthermore, this project connects rhetorical theory to rhetorical practice, what Paulo Freire called praxis. Ultimately, this project provides a new view of literacy by theorizing how three different literacies interact, as well as the implications of these interactions in classrooms and communities.