Myles Horton, Highlander, and the Beloved Community

tags: civil rights, radical history, Highlander Folk School, Myles Horton, Interracial Solidarity

Robert Hunt Ferguson is an Associate Professor of History at Western Carolina University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Race and the Remaking of the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi was published with the University of Georgia Press in January 2018.

On the night of March 29, 2019, an administrative building at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee burned to the ground. Although no one was injured, decades worth of documents and artifacts were incinerated. First responders and investigators discovered a white power symbol spray-painted in the parking lot near the smoldering remains. While the incident was devastating and called into question the safety of the staff at Highlander, it underscored founder Myles Horton’s belief that his school was an idea more than a physical space. It helped to have a location where like-minded people could gather, but more important were the ideas that were disseminated from Highlander. 

Founded in 1932, the original Highlander Folk School served as an incubator for many of the important ideas that shaped twentieth-century social movements. Since its founding, the school has supported the labor movement, traditional Appalachian folkways, civil rights activism, the establishment of African American-led citizenship schools, anti-poverty initiatives, and environmental movements. Some of the most important social justice advocates of the last century passed through Highlander as teachers, students, or collaborators. Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Dombrowski, Zilphia Horton, and Paulo Freire all had major impacts on Highlander, and were likewise affected by their time at the school interacting with Myles Horton. 

Stephen Preskill, a former professor of education and leadership at Columbia University, has written the most thorough study of Highlander and its founder to date. The first half of Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision for Social Justice serves as a biography of Horton’s early life and major intellectual influences. The second half is mainly devoted to the social justice initiatives that were either born at Highlander or further nurtured there. Preskill is not shy about his love for Horton and admiration for Highlander. Early in the book, the author claims that “popular education and deep democracy, as Horton lived and practiced them, continue to be the foundation for all meaningful social change today” (10).  

It should be clearly noted here that Preskill does not focus much of his work on the African American intellectual traditions that passed through Highlander. To be fair, this is mostly a limitation of the subject of Myles Horton.  While Horton deeply admired and shared goals with African American activists, teachers, and intellectuals such as Septima Clark and Ella Baker, he considered them peers.  Ignorance of black intellectual traditions and histories of community activism was common among white-led movements in the early twentieth century. Horton’s biggest intellectual influences, according to Preskill, were white progressives. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park helped shape Horton’s early ideas and aided his nascent vision for a folk school.  

Yet African American activists and educators played prominent roles in the history of Highlander.  Indeed, it was civil rights training seminars—held at Highlander in the 1950s and 1960s—that arguably produced the school’s greatest impact on the twentieth century. While Preskill gives adequate treatment to Septima Clark, an integral staff member at Highlander, his focus on Horton sometimes obscures other educators and activists who were central to Highlander’s culture and mission. Preskill’s treatment of Rosa Parks similarly demonstrates a missed opportunity to write about both black and white intellectual traditions and how they collided. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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