Tuesday Oct 26

Winter 2020

The Long Legacy of Miles Horton and the Highlander Center

 

Not long after Myles Horton died in 1990, activist Anne Braden paid tribute to Horton for his commitment to doing the impossible. As she saw it, establishing the Highlander Folk School in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression and in a profoundly impoverished part of rural Tennessee epitomized the “impossible.” Just as improbably, Horton chose to make Highlander a center for adult learning where subjugated southern workers, both black and white, could meet together in a spirit of equality and mutual respect. Few places in the world were as inhospitable to workers’ rights and racial justice as the rural South in the 1930s. Jim Crow segregation engulfed the region and workers who organized for higher wages and better working conditions risked being branded as communists. Braden called it an impossible mission at an impossible time. Nor did she underestimate its perils. “One did not challenge the South’s ‘way of life’ without risking one’s own life in the process.”

“From the beginning,” sociologist Aldon Morris affirmed, “Highlander was a rarity. In the midst of worker oppression, racism, and lynchings, Highlander unflinchingly communicated to the world that it was an island of decency that would never betray its humanitarian vision.” Somehow, despite the implausibility of their quest, Horton and his Highlander colleagues persisted. In time, the southern workers did gain greater control over their lives, in part, due to Highlander’s efforts, and after many years of trying to bring integrated groups together without success, Highlander became one of the few places in the South where blacks and whites could count on encountering one another as equals. When SNCC leader and future Congressman John Lewis attended a Highlander workshop in 1960, the extent of the integration stunned him: “...this was the first time in my life that I saw black people and white people not just sitting down together at long tables for shared meals, but also cleaning up together afterward, doing the dishes together, gathering together late into the night in deep discussion and sleeping in the same cabin dormitories....” To Anne Braden, Horton and his colleagues were able “to attempt the impossible because they were gripped by a vision of a new kind of society...in which there would be justice for all.”

Miles Horton 

 

 

many years of trying to bring integrated groups together without success, Highlander became one of the few places in the South where blacks and whites could count on encountering one another as equals. When SNCC leader and future Congressman John Lewis attended a Highlander workshop in 1960, the extent of the integration stunned him: “...this was the first time in my life that I saw black people and white people not just sitting down together at long tables for shared meals, but also cleaning up together afterward, doing the dishes together, gathering together late into the night in deep discussion and sleeping in the same cabin dormitories....” To Anne Braden, Horton and his colleagues were able “to attempt the impossible because they were gripped by a vision of a new kind of society...in which there would be justice for all.”

As director of Highlander, over the course of some 40 years, Horton had a hand in fueling two of the twentieth century’s greatest social movements: the crusade for organized labor and the freedom struggle for civil rights. Because of Highlander, thousands of people gained the determination and the skills to make change for the common good in their communities. At the heart of Highlander’s educational approach stood its commitment to democracy, which Horton saw as much more than casting a ballot or majority rule. For him, it meant nothing less than carving out a “free space” for people to learn, play and work together and to gain greater control over their collective lives.

In his 1952 book South of Freedom, which examined life under Jim Crow, black journalist Carl Rowan identified a handful of white southerners actively working for racial justice. Horton was one of these. Rowan admired him for spearheading one of the few meeting places in the South that insisted on racial integration, and for being willing to denounce “racial segregation” as “the root and perpetrator of all the evils” plaguing the South. Forty-eight years later, when C-Span founder Brian Lamb asked philosopher and social activist Cornel West which white person in American history, male or female, “was most sympathetic to changing racial differences,” West responded, without hesitation, “Myles Horton.” He described Horton as an “indescribably courageous and visionary white brother from Tennessee.” Later, West also called Horton “one of the great existential democrats of the twentieth century in terms of understanding democracy as a way of life.”

In November of 2016, leaders in the Black Lives Matter Movement chose the Highlander Research and Education Center as the site for an important organizational gathering, because they knew about Highlander’s relentless commitment to social justice. They knew that Highlander had fearlessly taken the side of the disempowered and the dispossessed for over 80 years. And they knew that when the Civil Rights Movement reached its height, Highlander remained one of the few places in the South that embraced freedom fighters like Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King. All came to Highlander to continue the struggle for human rights and all aligned themselves with Highlander in promoting participatory democracy and social change from the bottom up. It turns out that Highlander’s legacy lives on in the hearts of some of America’s most dedicated racial justice activists.

I met Myles Horton just once, when he was a guest speaker in a community organizing class at Carleton College taught by Paul Wellstone, later the two-term U.S. Senator from the State of Minnesota. It was the mid-1980s and I was serving as an assistant professor of education at Carleton where I had gotten to know Paul fairly well. He knew of my interest in Highlander and so encouraged me to sit in. Wellstone’s emphasis on fostering social change was a perfect opportunity for Myles to share his favorite yarns about his work at Highlander. None of the students had ever heard of him or Highlander, but they quickly warmed to Myles’s folksy manner and irrepressible sense
of humor. He loved to laugh and did so a lot, mainly in response to his own jokes and anecdotes. I remember, too, the affectionate bantering between Myles and Paul. It was clear they knew each other well and had worked together many times as activists. But Myles wasn’t all smiles. He also became deadly serious when he talked about how much work needed to be done to make the U.S. an authentic democracy. He said that democracy wasn’t working at all, not just in Appalachia, but throughout the country. And until people found the strength, confidence, and spirit of unity to take charge of their lives and their communities, change would not happen.

His eyes were lively and his wit was sharp, but he also seemed to tire easily – he was over 80 at the time – and would soon be diagnosed with cancer. When he and I were alone together for a few minutes after the class was over, I asked him about his biggest influences. I mentioned John Dewey, but he said George S. Counts was much more important to him, because when he was young he was such a bold advocate for radical change. He said Karl Marx was also a key influence, because Marx gave him the tools for understanding what he was reading and what he was up against in opposing powerful interests that didn’t seem to care much about people in need. He also asked me a lot of questions about what I hoped to accomplish as an educator.

When I responded that part of my goal was to follow his example, he laughed, partly because he didn’t see himself as a role model and partly because he doubted I could accomplish much as a professor at an elite college. When I brought up Paul, he smiled serenely, and then added: “Paul Wellstone is a one in a million. Few, if any, can do what he does in working-class communities and still hang on at a college like this.” I nodded without saying anything, perhaps because we both knew how close Wellstone had come to losing his position at Carleton near the beginning of his career and how much tension remained between him and many of his colleagues. I wanted our time together

to go on indefinitely, but Myles was late for a meeting in the Twin Cities and he was pretty much talked out. When the campus visit was over, I watched Paul and Myles say goodbye to one another with a warm embrace. Myles waved and urged me to come to Highlander. I never did. Horton was a Tennessee native, born and bred in the western part of the state. Although he later traveled a great deal, raising money and enlisting allies to keep Highlander alive, he remained in rural Tennessee for the rest of his life. When asked why he planted his roots so firmly in Tennessee, he called it the region he knew and loved best. He looked on Tennessee as the place where he could make the biggest difference in people’s lives, because it was under his skin, inseparable from how he saw himself as a person and an activist. Years later, Horton observed that he never wanted to create a school for the United States as a whole. He wanted to erect a school for a specific place with specific boundaries known as Appalachia. “I was trying to think of a school for people I knew...the largest number of poor white people in the United States; people who had some semblance of a tradition and background...I knew there was a certain distinctiveness that grew partially out of poverty and partially out of isolation, and partly out of the background of people who came here.”

I first learned about Myles Horton many years ago when I discovered a two-hour television interview conducted by Bill Moyers to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school Horton had started back in 1932. When I first viewed the Moyers’ interview, Horton’s respect for ordinary people and his uncompromising commitment to creating a truly equitable society astonished me. Who was this man who believed so totally in the ability of the person next door, whoever she or he was, to become a leader and learn how to change the community’s life for the better? When Moyers asked what idea set Highlander apart from other schools, Horton replied, somewhat haltingly, that Highlander “believed in people.” In another context, Horton called Highlander a “faith venture,” not because its directors had faith in a method or a clever approach, but owing to their faith in people, above all. He went on to say that Highlander always put people ahead of institutions or structures and that this first principle of prioritizing people made powerful learning possible, allowing them to realize that the answers to their problems resided inside of them. They just needed encouragement and time to reflect on their experiences and a few strategies to bring those answers to the surface. As Horton put it in 1968, “We have felt that people, especially poor adults, who had been denied opportunities for full development had a capacity that was untapped and if you could find some way to get people turned on and give them confidence that they had something to say about their own lives they would come up with some creative answers and activities.” In order to live this philosophy, Highlander found that it must erase the line between teachers and students. While the staff or teachers might have more formal knowledge or book learning, Horton found that the so-called students often had “deeper insights into human relationships...[and] a better understanding of how to deal with people, like themselves.”

At the end of his famous two-hour interview with Myles, Bill Moyers asked: “How do you see yourself Myles Horton?” Myles replied, “I’m an instrument, you know. That’s why I don’t take these things personally. And when Moyers asked, “An instrument of what?”, Horton answered, “Well, I’m an instrument of—I tried to be an instrument--at Highlander, I try to make, you know, I tried to make Highlander an instrument of empowering people, a way to get people to understand that they can
be creative and imaginative. They don’t have to put up with this system the way it is. They can create a new one that would be more humane.” People sometimes asked about Highlander’s program, but Horton regarded such details as relatively unimportant. What mattered far more was educating people by example. “You educate by your own life, who you are. I’m interested in people learning how to learn. Now the only way I can help is to share my enthusiasm and my ability to learn myself. If quit learning, I can’t share.” In his 1927 study of the Danish Folk Schools, Joseph K. Hart wrote: “We have plenty of men and women who can teach what they know...but very few who can teach their own capacity to learn.” Myles Horton dedicated his life to knowing and acting on the difference.

STEPHEN PRESKILL is a writing consultant at Columbia University. During his thirty years as a university professor, he specialized in American educational history and leadership studies. Education in Black and White is available from the University of California Press at ucpress.edu.

 

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