As Myles Horton told it, he was 20 years old before he met his first Black person. It was at a YMCA conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Horton and a Black conferee tried to go together to the public library, where the African-American was turned away. That was when Horton started to become, in his words, “a hillbilly radical.”
Five years later, Horton had studied with the social-gospel guru Reinhold Niebuhr, and gotten encouragement from two hall of fame social activists, Jane Addams and W. E. B. DuBois, to teach his radical ideas on unionization and racial friendship and understanding. Horton opened his Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee in 1932.
From the jump, the Highlander School was revolutionary in many ways. First off, most of the students were adults, and second, they were recruited from the bottom up – the illiterate, the unemployed, the underpaid – and what it offered was not just a school, but what we would call today, a leadership institute.
Within months of the Highlander’s founding, it was presented with a crisis demanding leadership. 100 miles north of the campus, in a Tennessee town called Wilder, miners had gone on strike and the coal company not only locked them out, it pulled the plug on the town’s electricity in freezing weather. The Red Cross responded, but only gave relief to strike breakers and their families. Enter the Highlanders. They organized a food and clothing drive for the miners, bringing in provisions from across the state.
When Myles Horton showed up himself, to see how his students were doing, he was arrested. He claimed at his trial, his arrest was for “coming here, getting information and going back and teaching it.”
What the Horton and the Highlander taught was problem solving.
The problems included racism, economic exploitation, and politically-induced hostility to progressive ideas – or as frequently slung at the Highlander program, “the Communist Agenda.”
The solutions offered were essentially three:
- organization, the creation of collective effort through labor unions and civil rights organizations
- non-violence, even in civil disobedience
- equal rights for all
A famous graduate of a Highlander workshop, Rosa Parks, who refused the back of the bus in Birmingham, Alabama, told Studs Terkel what “equal rights for all” meant at the Highlander Folk School.
“It was my very first experience in my entire life going to a place where there were other people, and people of another race, and where we were all treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with artificial boundaries of racial segregation. [It] did give me” she said, “my first insight on the fact that there were such people who believe completely in freedom and equality for all.”
In 1959, the state shut Highlander down, and in 1961 someone burned the original building to the ground. It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time.
The latest time was on this past March 29. The main building of the third incarnation of the Highlander School was torched. It was completely destroyed and important school records and historic documents went up in the flames.
Robin D.G. Kelley is Professor of History and Black Studies at UCLA. His books include Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (UNC Press, 2015, 2nd ed.) and Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009).