Highlander: A Road To Hope

April 20, 2011 in 1940s-1950s, 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s

At the peak of American industry during the time before the economic collapse of 1929 workers were struggling for their rights as citizens of the United States. Some were forced to work with no incentives, some had nowhere else to go, and few dared challenge the status quo. After the economic collapse those who were lucky enough to remain working went through even harsher conditions and had even fewer abilities to fight back. It was during this time that the Highlander Folk School was established in small Grundy County, Tennessee. The schools original purpose was to train workers and help organize the union effort to fight for workers rights. Over time, however, the focus of the Highlander Folk School evolved. Though they were still a part of the union organization front, they also took up the cause of those battling the injustices of Jim Crow and fighting for Civil Rights.

The two causes were tied together at the very core from the beginning. Even during the early days, when the school was first getting started, Highlander held to the principle that a persons race should have no effect on how they were viewed. This was during a time when Communism was becoming a factor in mainstream America and the government was looking at Highlander as a possible Communist training facility. In the 1940’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks both attended the Highlander Folk School for training. Later, some who were seeking to defame and damage the character of Dr. King would bring this to light and try and paint him as a Communist. For most of it’s run before it was forced to close and relocate, the Highlander Folk School was looked into by the FBI.

Training important leaders wasn’t the only thing that the Highlander Folk School did for civil rights either. The school also set up literacy schools across the south. This was an attempt to develop local leadership in certain areas as well as educate citizens well enough to pass literacy tests and be able to vote. The program was called the Citizenship Education Program, and according to the Journal of American Studies the first of these was set up in South Carolina. Under the surface the South Carolina initiative holds even more historic weight when you take into account he political atmosphere of the state. It was South Carolina in 1832 which forced Andrew Jackson’s hand by threatening secession. It was South Carolina in 1861 where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. Then, almost one hundred years later, it was in South Carolina where Highlander started a key initiative of the Civil Rights Movement to try and fight back against Jim Crow.

What makes these CEP’s even more astounding for the time is that many of them were led by women like Septima Clark and Bernice Williams. By 1965 schools had been set up all across the south. When the Highlander Folk School was under investigation and forced to close the CEP was such an important part of the movement that it was handed over the to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. King.

Rosa Parks, who had trained at Highlander in the 1940’s once said, “Without being educated and without being able to vote I tried to be a good citizen. I did attend a workshop at the Highlander School, and I want to tell you that the only reason I don’t hate every white man alive is Highlander and Myles Horton.” Myles Horton was born in Tennessee and attended Cumberland College before moving to New York and studying. In 1931 he returned and, along with Don West and James Dombrowski who would later go on to other endeavors while Horton maintained the Highlander, established the folk school.

In 1960 the school came under serious investigation by the FBI. When the school was forced the school to close, due to its support for Civil Rights in 1961 Horton would not give up the fight. Just as Highlander had evolved to take up the cause of the defense of Civil Rights, so to had Myles Horton. He had gone from a man who thirty years earlier was arrested at a strike in Kentucky to a man who would not give up on the dream of an entire race of people. The state of Tennessee gave Highlander a new charter. The school was reorganized as The Highlander Research and Education Center and still remains active today. The Highlander Folk School, and later Highlander Research and Education Center, was an inspiration and a beacon of hope during an age when hope was hard to find.

 

Additional Source Information:

Kenneth Torquil MacLean. “Origins of the Southern Civil Rights Movement: Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School.” The Phi Delta Kappan 47, no. 9 (May 1966): 487-489.

Peter Ling. “Local Leadership in the Early Civil Rights Movement: The South Carolina Citizenship Education Program of the Highlander Folk School.” Journal of American Studies 29, no. 3 (December 1995): 399-422.

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