The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly known as the Highlander Folk School, is a social justice leadership training school and cultural center located in New Market, Tennessee. Founded in 1932 by activist Myles Horton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski, it was originally located in the community of Summerfield in Grundy County, Tennessee, between Monteagle and Tracy City. It was featured in the 1985 documentary film, You Got to Move. Much of the history was documented in the book “Or We’ll All Hang Separately: The Highlander Idea” by Thomas Bledsoe.
Highlander provides training and education for emerging and existing movement leaders throughout the South, Appalachia, and the world. Some of Highlander's earliest contributions were during the labor movement in Appalachia and throughout the Southern United States. During the 1950s, it played a critical role in the American Civil Rights Movement. It trained civil rights leader Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as providing training for many other movement activists, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950s. Backlash against the school's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement led to the school's closure by the state of Tennessee in 1961. Staff reorganized and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they rechartered Highlander under the name "Highlander Research and Education Center." Highlander has been in its current (and longest consecutive) home in New Market, TN, since 1971.
The Highlander Folk School was originally established in Grundy County, Tennessee, on land donated for this purpose by educator Lilian Wyckoff Johnson. When Highlander was founded in 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Workers in all parts of the country were met with major resistance by employers when they tried to organize labor unions, especially in the South. Against that backdrop, Horton, West and Dombrowski created the Highlander School "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains." Horton was influenced by observing rural adult education schools in Denmark started in the 19th century by Danish Lutheran Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig. During the 1930s and 1940s, the school's main focus was labor education and the training of labor organizers.
In the 1950s, Highlander turned its energies to the rising issues of civil rights and desegregation. In addition to Myles Horton and others, a key figure during this period was John Beauchamp Thompson, a minister and educator who became one of the principal fund-raisers and speakers for the school. Highlander worked with Esau Jenkins of Johns Island to develop a literacy program for Blacks who were prevented from registering to vote by literacy requirements. The Citizenship Education Schools coordinated by Septima Clark with assistance from Bernice Robinson spread widely throughout the South and helped thousands of Blacks register to vote. Later, the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, because the state of Tennessee was threatening to close the school.
The civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome", was adapted from a gospel song, by Highlander music director Zilphia Horton, wife of Myles Horton, from the singing of striking tobacco factory workers in South Carolina in 1946. Shortly afterward, it was published by folksinger Pete Seeger in the People's Songs bulletin. It was revived at Highlander by Guy Carawan, who succeeded Zilphia Horton as Highlander's music director in 1959. Guy Carawan taught the song to SNCC at their first convening at Shaw University. The song has since spread and become one of the most recognizable movement songs in the world.
In reaction to the school's work, during the late 1950s, Southern newspapers attacked Highlander for supposedly creating racial strife. In 1957, the Georgia Commission on Education published a pamphlet titled "Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee". A controversial photograph of Martin Luther King and writer, trade union organizer, civil rights activist and co-founder of the Highlander School Donald Lee West, was published. According to information obtained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, West was the District Director of the Communist Party in North Carolina, though West denied he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. In 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter, and confiscated and auctioned the school's land and property. According to Septima Clark's autobiography, Echo In My Soul (page 225), the Highlander Folk School was closed, because it engaged in commercial activities in violation its charter. The Highlander Folk School was chartered by the State of Tennessee as a non-profit corporation without stockholders or owners. Once the State revoked its charter, no one could make a legal claim on any of the property. In 1961, the Highlander staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to Knoxville. In 1971, it relocated to New Market, Tennessee.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Highlander focused on worker health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia. Its leaders played a role in the emergence of the region's environmental justice movement. It helped start the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training (SALT) program, and coordinated a survey of land ownership in Appalachia. In the 1980s and 1990s, Highlander broadened their base into broader regional, national, and international environmentalism; struggles against the negative effects of globalization; grassroots leadership development in under-resourced communities. Beginning in the 1990s, became involved in LGBT issues, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Current focuses of Highlander include issues of democratic participation and economic justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, LGBT, and poor white people.
In 2014, the Tennessee Preservation Trust placed the original Grundy County school building on its list of the ten most "endangered" historic sites in Tennessee.
The directors of Highlander have been:
A Tennessee Historical Commission Marker is present near the original location of the Highlander Folk School outside of Monteagle, Tennessee. The text of the marker reads:
|In 1932, Myles Horton and Don West founded Highlander Folk School, located ½ mile north of this site. It quickly became one of the few schools in the South committed to the cause of organized labor, economic justice, and an end to racial segregation. Courses included labor issues, literacy, leadership, and non-violent desegregation strategies, with workshops led by Septima Clark. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Eleanor Roosevelt found inspiration for the modern civil rights movement there. Opponents of its causes tried to close the school.|
|Following a 1959–1960 trial in Grundy County, the State of Tennessee revoked the school’s charter. It was adjudged to have violated segregation laws, sold beer without a license, and conveyed property to Myles Horton for his home. When the sheriff padlocked the school, Horton proclaimed Highlander to be an idea rather than simply a group of buildings, adding “You can’t padlock an idea.” In a 1979 Ford Foundation Report, Highlander was singled out as the most notable American experiment in adult education for social change.|
|Tennessee Historical Commission|
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