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School at center of civil rights battle celebrates 75 years


The little school tucked away in the east Tennessee mountains may have faded from the public spotlight, but it was once at the center of the struggle for civil rights.

It has been investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, spied on by a governor of Georgia and marched on by the Klan, but the Highlander Research and Education Center has stuck around.

The school for social justice, which counts Rosa Parks among its alumni and Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and folk singer Pete Seeger among its supporters, celebrated its 75th birthday this month.

About 1,200 people showed up for the Labor Day weekend party. Punk rockers, hip-hoppers, bearded octogenarians and women in African print dresses brought their families to this tiny town 25 miles northeast of Knoxville to sing, dance, eat barbecue and earnestly discuss how to solve the problems of the world.

“I believe (the school) is as important as it ever was, but it’s addressing issues that are more complex and there’s not an identifiable movement like the civil rights movement,” said Ball State University historian John Glen, who has written a book about the school.

The Highlander Folk School opened in 1932 outside Monteagle and initially worked with labor organizers. During the ’50s and ’60s, the focus of the work turned to civil rights, and today much of Highlander’s work is with immigrants and young people.

Monica Hernandez facilitates a two-year course to train Hispanic leaders at Highlander and is organizing a new course that will include leaders from various immigrant and refugee groups and activists from across the South.

“The most important part of the Highlander experience is what people gain when they gather together and learn from each other the creativity it unleashes,” she said. “It allows them to be themselves, to think and organize.”

Francisco Flores, a 23-year-old graduate of the leadership program, said the training helped him organize a forum on immigration in his hometown of Memphis that attracted 600 people.

“When I first came (to Highlander), I came in at night and it was a full moon and you could see the shadow of the Smokies. Just being on the farm and seeing how beautiful it was … as soon as I was here I felt peaceful.”

Highlander’s longevity is surprising given the forces that have lined up against it over the years.

It was branded “communist” almost from the beginning, but it was when the school turned its focus to promoting racial integration that its detractors turned vicious and violent.

Rosa Parks attended a workshop there on integration in 1955, about six months before she famously refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. She always credited Highlander with helping her become a more determined activist, Glen said.

Parks returned to Highlander two years later with King for the school’s 25th anniversary celebration, where King gave a keynote address on achieving freedom and equality through nonviolence.

Also at the celebration was an undercover photographer sent by segregationist Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin to snap photos of a former Communist Party member (also sent by the governor) as he sidled up to King, Glen said.

The picture was subsequently plastered on billboards across the South with the slogan “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” That turned out to be the beginning of a concerted and ultimately successful effort to shutter the school.

In 1961, the Highlander Folk School lost its charter, its buildings and its land; but it was soon open again under a new name at a new location in Knoxville. There it endured Klan marches, fire bombs and arrests. But after desegregation became accepted as inevitable and the school moved to rural New Market in 1971, the worst days of persecution were over.

While Highlander exists primarily to promote political organization, some of its most important contributions have been musical.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the Grammy Award-winning black female a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, attended Highlander music workshops in the early 1960s and has been involved with the school ever since. At the anniversary celebration she credited the school with helping her see her musical heritage as something special.

“From the time I was born, we were always singing,” Reagon said. “When you’re inside a culture and, quote, ‘doing what comes naturally to you,’ you don’t pay attention to it. … I think my work as a cultural scholar, singer and composer would be completely different if I had not had someone draw my attention to the people who use songs to stay alive or to keep themselves together or to lift up the energy in a movement.”

Reagon now administers a fund that earns money from the commercial use of the song “We Shall Overcome.”

As Seeger tells it, Highlander’s first music director learned an old spiritual from South Carolina tobacco workers attending a workshop there in the 1940s. After several changes and additions from various musicians, including Seeger, that song became “We Shall Overcome.”

A subsequent music director, Guy Carawan, who still works with Highlander, then taught the song at a meeting of student sit-in leaders and it soon became the theme song of the civil rights movement. Later Carawan, Seeger and another person copyrighted “We Shall Overcome” and set up the fund to support worthy projects.

Seeger attended both the 25th and 50th anniversaries of Highlander. At 88 he is unable to travel much but he still sent a DVD greeting to participants at the weekend’s celebration.

Seeger said he thinks the power of Highlander now lies in helping many small movements to flourish like community gardens and floating pools that allow people to swim in once polluted rivers.

“The powers that be … can destroy any big thing,” he said, “but what are they going to do about 10 million small things?”

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–Associated Press

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