The Highlander Center Won’t Let an Arsonist Extinguish Its Flame of Justice

Sammy Solomon/New Market Fire and Rescue Team via AP

Fire engulfs the main offices of the Highlander Education and Research Center in New Market, Tennessee, March 29, 2019.

In 1959, segregationist law enforcement officials in Tennessee raided the Highlander Folk School, a controversial interracial training center for labor and civil rights activists, for selling liquor without a license. The pretense: A workshop participant took a beer from a cooler and left behind a quarter. The state confiscated the property and shut Highlander down.

Myles Horton, who had founded Highlander in 1932, pledged that its work would continue.

“Highlander is an idea,” Horton said. “You can’t padlock an idea.”

Horton soon re-opened Highlander in another part of Tennessee, continuing its mission as a catalyst for the civil rights movement and, more recently, environmental justice and other progressive movements.

It appears that hatemongers have again tried to shut down Highlander. On March 29, a fire destroyed the main administrative building on its 100-acre campus near Knoxville. Nobody was hurt, but state authorities announced that they discovered a white supremacist symbol painted on the pavement near the building’s charred remains. This is the same symbol that the man who live-streamed the massacre of 50 Muslims in two New Zealand mosques in March had painted on his gun. In November, someone had painted that symbol, along with swastikas, on the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus.

These incidents are part of an upsurge of racist and white nationalist incidents that have escalated since Donald Trump took office. The Anti-Defamation League has identified 12 white supremacist events or incidents in the Knoxville area since 2017, compared with only one incident between 2013 and 2016. Across the country, hate crimes increased by 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the FBI’s most recent statistics available.

For over 80 years, thousands of activists have participated in Highlander’s workshops, and many more have been inspired by its ideas. As a pioneering training center, it has played a key role in the nation’s progressive movements, but is little known to most Americans. The attention brought about by the arson fire might help generate donations to help it rebuild and spotlight the fabled institution’s history as the epicenter for popular education, community organizing, and participatory action-oriented research.

Rosa Parks attended a ten-day interracial workshop at Highlander during the summer of 1955 to discuss strategies for implementing integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Highlander was one of the few places where whites and blacks—rank-and-file activists and left-wing radicals—could participate as equals.

“One of my greatest pleasures there was enjoying the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing and knowing that white folks were doing the preparing instead of me,” Parks recalled. “I was 42 years old, and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people.”

Highlander Research and Education Center

Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander in 1957.

Parks was a veteran activist with the Montgomery, Alabama, chapter of the NAACP, challenging the Jim Crow laws that kept blacks from voting and organizing black youths to protest the city’s segregated public-library system. Her experience at Highlander persuaded her that it was possible for blacks and whites to live in “an atmosphere of complete equality,” without “any artificial barriers of racial segregation,” she recalled. So when she decided to resist Montgomery’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on December 1, 1955, she was not acting on the spur of the moment after a hard day’s work. Her action was something she had been thinking about for a long time, and the workshop at Highlander six months earlier had strengthened her resolve.

That was exactly the kind of activism and leadership training that Horton had envisioned when he founded Highlander. “We believe that education leads to action,” he explained. “If you advocate just one action, you’re an organizer. We teach leadership here. Then people go out and do what they want.”

Horton was being somewhat disingenuous. He was a radical, and he started Highlander to help people challenge the South’s class and racial caste system. The people he brought to Highlander shared some version of his progressive belief in greater economic and racial equality.

Born in 1905 in a log cabin near Savannah, Tennessee, Horton was raised by parents who valued service and education. His mother, a teacher, organized classes for poor and illiterate neighbors. His father was a member of the Workers Alliance, a union formed by employees of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration.

While in high school, Horton worked in a factory making crates for shipping tomatoes. Upset at earning only a penny a crate, Horton persuaded the other employees to stop working and hold out for a pay increase. “The tomatoes kept stacking up,” Horton recalled, and after two hours, they got their raise.

Horton entered Cumberland University in Tennessee in 1924 and quickly led a student rebellion against the hazing of freshmen by fraternities. During his junior year, Horton attended a YMCA conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he had his first contact with African American and foreign students. He was angry that he was not permitted to take a Chinese woman to a restaurant or to enter a public library with a black acquaintance. He was further angered by a Labor Day speech given on campus by John Emmett Edgerton, a woolen manufacturer and a trustee of Cumberland University. Edgerton warned students that northern agitators were starting labor unions that would destroy industry and jobs in the South. To see for himself, Horton went to Edgerton’s textile mill in Lebanon, Tennessee. He was shocked by the conditions and urged the workers to organize. University officials threatened to expel him if he visited the mill again.

During the summer of 1927, Horton taught Bible school classes to poor mountain people in Ozone, Tennessee, for the Presbyterian Church. He invited the students’ parents to discuss their problems, and they talked about the challenges of farming, how to get a job in a textile mill, how to test wells for typhoid, and other issues. For the 22-year-old Horton, the people’s response to his classes was a revelation. He realized that he could lead a discussion without knowing all the answers. And he could get people to talk about their problems so they could figure out for themselves how to solve them.

Inspired by these experiences, Horton, after graduating from Cumberland, enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York, where he took classes with Reinhold Niebuhr, a leading theologian who headed the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. While at UTS, Horton visited Brookwood Labor College (a training center for activists) and several utopian cooperatives (such as the Oneida Community) that had been formed by religious and radical groups in the 1800s. He also helped organize garment workers in New York City, and visited North Carolina to observe a textile strike.

In 1930 and 1931, as the Depression deepened, Horton took graduate courses at the University of Chicago with Robert E. Park and Lester Ward, two reform-oriented sociologists, and John Dewey, the philosopher and educational reformer. He also visited Jane Addams at Hull House.

These ideas and experiences strengthened Horton’s resolve to connect education and social action. He decided that he wanted to start a school in the South, helping ordinary people—black and white, rural and urban—to become effective activists. Along with Don West and Jim Dombrowski, he founded Highlander in Monteagle, Tennessee.

Highlander began with eight students. Horton and the students soon began to help striking coal miners in Wilder, Tennessee, 100 miles from Monteagle, by soliciting and distributing food and clothing. The violence used by the company against the strikers, the complicity of local government officials, the biased coverage by the newspapers, the murder of the local union president, and the near-starvation conditions faced by the workers and their families shocked Horton and shaped Highlander’s labor education program. The school soon offered practical courses in labor history, union strategies, economics, journalism, public speaking, and parliamentary procedure. Mimeographing, drama, and music were also on the curriculum.

Within a few years, Highlander had become a training center for the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ leaders in the South. It helped coal miners, woodcutters, mill hands, and other workers. Horton and his colleagues defiantly insisted that the workshops be racially integrated, which was not only controversial but also a violation of Tennessee law. One of the students at Highlander’s summer school for budding journalists in 1941 was Bettye Goldstein, the radical editor of the Smith College newspaper. After college, she became a reporter for several left-wing union newspapers, where she wrote articles about women and work. Later, as Betty Friedan, she wrote The Feminine Mystique, which inspired the 1960s wave of feminism.

In the 1950s, Highlander began holding workshops on public school desegregation and became a magnet for people concerned about racial injustice and civil rights. It attracted people from high schools and colleges, churches, YMCAs, unions, and social clubs. It also sponsored racially integrated children’s camps. In 1957, the 28-year-old Martin Luther King attended his first Highlander workshop and was a frequent visitor. Highlander connected him to a network of radicals, pacifists, and union activists from around the country whose ideas helped widen his political horizons.

Many others who became civil rights leaders spent time at Highlander, including Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Ralph Abernathy. After attending a Highlander workshop, two black community leaders from South Carolina—Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark—organized Citizenship Schools where black adults could learn to read and write and thus qualify to vote.

“I left Highlander on fire,” recalled John Lewis, who, as a student, attended a Highlander workshop. There he met activists who helped him visualize what could happen if thousands of poor working people—folks like Lewis’s sharecropper parents—were galvanized into direct action. Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, became a leader of the sit-in movement, a Freedom Rider, and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Highlander’s cultural workshops, led by Horton’s wife Zilphia, brought activists together to share songs and create new ones, often by revising popular melodies and hymns. It was at a Highlander workshop that folksingers Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan first heard the song “We Shall Overcome” from North Carolina tobacco workers, who had used the Negro hymn during a strike. Seeger and Carawan revised the words, quickened the tempo, and tweaked the tune, then taught the song to students involved in the sit-in movement.

Highlander attracted many supporters, among them Eleanor Roosevelt, but it also had many powerful opponents. In 1954, the segregationist Senator James Eastland of Mississippi held hearings to uncover Highlander’s “subversive” activities. Three years later, Georgia’s Commission on Education, created to counter school desegregation efforts, distributed 250,000 copies of a four-page report, “Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School.” Southern newspapers published excerpts of that bogus report and the far-right John Birch Society put up billboards across the South with a photo captioned “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” Highlander’s insurance company canceled its fire insurance, which Horton suspected was the work of segregationists trying to put Highlander out of business.

Charles Knoblock/AP Photo

A passerby watches men who say they belong to Milwaukee Citizens Council park a trailer bearing a sign reading "Luther King at Communist Training School" outside Union Hall at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nov. 24, 1965.

Between 1957 and 1971, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Highlander’s tax-exempt status three times, a form of harassment meant to undermine its fundraising efforts. The Ku Klux Klan marched in front of the school. In 1961, Tennessee courts ordered Highlander closed on the grounds that it had violated its charter by “permitting integration in its school work.” Horton relocated the school to Knoxville, and changed the name to Highlander Research and Education Center. In 1971, the school moved to its current location on a mountainside farm in New Market, Tennessee.

Highlander has continued as a center for social activism and education. It helped spawn a grassroots environmental justice movement across the South, opposing strip mining, advocating for worker health and safety, fighting pollution and toxic dumping, pushing for immigration rights and prison reform, and supporting the anti-globalization movement by sponsoring workshops on economic human rights and fair trade. Since 1983, it has hosted a racially diverse, weeklong Children’s Justice Camp during the summers.

Among its current programs are the STAY Project, which supports young environmental and civil rights activists in Appalachia; the National Bail Out Collective, which coordinates bail for incarcerated low-income people; and the Power U Center for Social Change, which works with youth of color in Miami, Florida.

A part of all Highlander workshops is teaching about its own history and the movements it helped spawn, so that activists see themselves as part of a multigenerational chain of change.

You may also like