Highlander’s Mission: Social Justice

by Aldon Morris, Northwestern University

from Critical Mass, Volume 44, Issue 1

The historically important Highlander Research and Education Center was deliberately attacked. On March 29, 2019, an early morning fire destroyed its executive office building along with historic documents, speeches, artifacts and memorabilia stored there. Although an investigation of the arson continues, all indications point to a white supremacy group as the perpetrator.

Before being renamed, Highlander was widely known as the Highlander Folk School. It was originally housed on a mountain in Monteagle, Tennessee. Like all towns in the south, Monteagle was governed by Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation. Its racism was accompanied by poverty where mountain workers barely eked out a living. In step with the southern United States, Monteagle did not welcome racial integration or union building. It despised “agitators” and activists who championed such insurgency and did not hesitate making sure they failed.

The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, a remarkable white man who was an agitator and an activist committed to empowering workers and tearing down the walls of racial segregation. Because his courageousness and creativity quickly became legendary, he attracted to Highlander other likeminded agitators and freedom fighters. Far more importantly, Highlander recruited exploited workers and members of oppressed racial groups who were not yet leaders and who had not developed the skill and courage to openly fight dangerous systems of oppression. Horton and his staff developed training sessions for these recruits that resembled seminars rather than rigid classroom routines. These discussions were informed by a public sociology which stressed that solutions to oppression resided in the diverse groups assembled. Through their interactions and discussions, the people discovered the answers they sought. Before leaving Highlander, they were asked how they were going to implement these actions when they returned home. For Highlander, action was the diploma that certified their new skills and courage.

Highlander prefigured the beloved society it wished to foster by being the change you wish to see in this world. Racial segregation was not allowed at Highlander. Labor unions practicing racial segregation and discrimination were barred until they integrated. At Highlander, blacks and whites sang, danced, and ate together as they contemplated social transformation. Emerging power hierarchies were dismantled before they ossified.

Given the social change skills it taught and the visionary cultural experiences it embraced, Highlander became an institution that nurtured important freedom struggles including the labor, civil rights, and environmental movements. Activists who are now historic figures… Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John Lewis… matriculated through Highlander. Being a midwife of social justice has been Highlander’s greatest contribution. Humanity is richer because Highlander labored to make it so.

Because of its boldness and success, Highlander has always been in the crosshairs of bigots, white supremacists and exploiters. It has had to fight charges of being a communist front, a whiskey manufacturer and corrupter of leaders like Dr. King. At one point Highlander was padlocked by the state and forced to move to another location. Myles Horton’s response was characteristically defiant: “Highlander is an idea rather than simply a group of buildings; you can’t padlock an idea.” To this latest white supremacist attack by fire, we respond: Long ago Highlander lit a social justice fire not extinguishable by retrogressive cowards.