“If people have a position on something and you try to argue them into changing it, you’re going to strengthen that position. If you want to change people’s ideas, you shouldn’t try to convince them intellectually. What you need to do is get them into a situation where they’ll have to act on ideas, not argue about them.”
Millions know “We Shall Overcome” by heart, but dig back into the history of this song–past Pete Seeger and the civil rights movement on your way to the song’s roots in gospel music and spirituals. On that journey, you’ll pass through the Highlander Folk School, where Myles Horton’s wife, Zilphia Horton, was the music director and found that song had a particular power to help union activists keep their spirits high. Zilphia used the song regularly and taught it to Pete, who added a couple of verses and carried it far and wide. That’s how the peacemaking family tree grows–many branches spread across the landscape. In my own peacemaking work over the years I came to respect Highlander because of all the talented people who were trained there. However, most of the Highlander branches were invisible to me. I wasn’t aware of Myles Horton until I began to fully study our collective family tree. In part,I am repaying debts to these often overlooked pioneers by naming them in these chapters.
James Bevel referred to this white educator as “the Father of the Civil Rights Movement.” Miles Horton was the co-founder and director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the training center for most of the great names in Civil Rights history. The school was also vilified as a “Communist training center.”
Born into a poor white Appalachian family, in the 1920s Horton traveled to Denmark to study the folk school movement and its impact upon the people and culture of Scandinavia. He was impressed with the philosophy of the folks schools to uphold the dignity of people and empower them individually and collectively to bring about social transformation. He embraced the view that oppressed people can together build their strategies for liberation and that participatory education can facilitate that process.
In 1932 Horton and Don West founded the Highland Folk School on a farm in Grundy County, Tennessee donated by Lillian Johnson, a friend and women’s suffragist. The initial focus was on the rural and industrial labor issues in Appalachia. Horton saw the center as a training ground and meeting place for coal miners, textile workers, farmers and others to build a progressive labor movement. He trained people for leadership in the unions, how to organize and how to engage in strikes. Workshops would be held from two days to eight weeks in length, usually with 15 to 40 participants.
Within two years of its founding the Highland School had its first black speaker at a workshop, though out of fears of reprisals from the local community the workshops themselves were not fully integrated until 1942, though field projects held outside of Highlander were. The commitment of Horton and the staff to integrate brought them into conflict with some Southern unions, but the Horton believed that the labor movement could not succeed until it also confronted the evils of segregation and racism.
By 1953 the Highland leaders felt a shift in focus was necessary, from the labor movement to the emerging Civil Rights movement. The school’s involvement with blacks in matters of justice for workers gave it credibility to expand into racial justice. Workshops were held on desegregating public schools in 1953, one year before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that mandated school desegregation. Black activists streamed to the school, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., who participated in workshops that helped shape their strategies for the Montgomery bus boycott shortly thereafter. Horton also launched Citizenship Schools in various Southern states as part of a voter education campaign, especially addressing the problems of illiteracy, which often was used to block black voters from access to the polls.
As activists gathered together Horton included a practice from the Danish folk school movement: group singing. Workshop participants shared songs with each other and were encouraged to create new music and adapt songs for the needs of their movement. Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” were written, sung, shared and carried far and wide, becoming signature expressions of the Civil Rights movement.
The success of grass roots and even national leadership development at the Highland Folk School provoked a white racist backlash. A sustained movement against the school labeled it as a “Communist training school.” A famous photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Highlander workshop was published as evidence of his “Communist” connections. There was an investigation by the Tennessee legislature, a police raid and two trials. Then in 1961 the State of Tennessee revoked the Highlander charter, confiscated its land and buildings despite protests from high-profile figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and U.N. Under-Secretary Ralph Bunche. The school survived by re-incorporating as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moving to Knoxville, Tennessee, where it remained until 1971.
Another shift in location and focus took place in 1971. The school moved back to a rural setting outside New Market, Tennessee. They returned to the Appalachian issues again, but with a wider range of concerns: strip-mining, environmental degradation, control and abuses by large outside corporations, and poverty. Horton retired as Highland director in 1973. The school has continued to provide training for activists in grassroots movements for justice and social change. It’s impact has expanded beyond Appalachia to countries like India and Nicaragua, training new generations of leaders to empower and transform their communities.