Myles Horton, Highlander, and the Beloved Community

Highlander Folk School Historical Marker, 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

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. 

In July 1955, Rosa Parks arrived at Highlander for a two-week workshop addressing the implementation of the recent Brown decision by the United States Supreme Court. Notably, the workshop was led by Septima Clark. While at Highlander, Parks was inspired by Clark and Horton, and awed by the commitment to interracial space at Highlander. But the Parks that is in the pages of Education in Black and White does not reflect her earlier activism. In this narrative, Parks arrived at Highlander as a nearly blank slate. A woman with potential to lead a movement, yes, but it was not until she came to Highlander that she realized her bravery and leadership qualities. A decade ago, Danielle McGuire’s history of the civil rights movement—which placed women at the center of the narrative—should have put to rest any debate about Parks as the unsuspecting initiator of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As McGuire convincingly argued, “Rosa Parks was a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an antirape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott.” Throughout most of Education in White and Black, Preskill attempts to demystify Highlander. He is mostly successful.  The recounting of Parks’ time there, however, only adds to the illusion.  

Although Education in Black and White mainly focuses on Horton, the book does raise some interesting questions for historians and anyone interested in how the past might inform present and future movements for racial justice. First, there is much to glean from Horton’s approach to education and social justice. Highlander’s mission, as Horton articulated it, was “‘not to solve problems but to use problems and crises as the basis for educating people about a democratic society. To make them want more and make them understand they can do more’” (88). A fierce critic of charismatic leadership, Horton espoused a “percolator” approach to education and activism, in which anyone involved in the endeavor could suggest action and have the space to enact it. This was opposed to the “drip” approach in which leaders imposed ideas and directives that dripped down to the rank and file (120-121). While Horton’s espousal of self-education and locally-led initiatives is comparable to many of the social justice movements happening today, Preskill’s documenting of Horton’s anger is also instructive for this historical moment. While bumper sticker mantras tell us about the place of love and kindness, Horton’s experience is a good reminder that anger can be useful. His anger at racism and the exploitations of a capitalist economy took a toll on him in his early years. He often worked himself to the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion.  Increasingly, however, Horton “learned that his anger was an important motivator for the kind of work he was trying to do.” Preskill perceptively concludes that Horton “learned to both appreciate and manage his anger, treating it as a constant, but not explosive ally” (21).  

Preskill’s study also raises important questions about the evolving nature of the “beloved community” envisioned by so many civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s.  What does the beloved community that Horton wished to bring into existence mean today?  How has that idea evolved over time? Is it an antiquated pursuit?  “Though Horton understood the disproportionate burden black people faced in fostering racial equality,” writes Preskill, “he believed the onus of responsibility was on whites. As the perpetrators of racism, Horton affirmed, whites had a duty to take concerted action to end it” (116).  Less than a month after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was established in 1960, Highlander hosted a series of workshops called “The Place of the White Southerner in the Current Struggle for Justice” (214).  One of Highlander’s chief aims was to organize whites. That happened in some communities, with Highlander’s help. Overall, however, that has not come to pass.

It’s been over two years since the fire destroyed the administrative building at Highlander. As of the writing of this review, the investigation is still ongoing.  Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have announced no suspects, nor made any arrests connected to the incident. Does change come in painfully slow increments? Or have the lessons nurtured at Highlander not had the kind of impact that Horton envisioned?

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Robert Hunt Ferguson

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. His work has appeared in the Journal of Southern History, the North Carolina Historical Review, and Arkansas Historical Quarterly. His research has been funded by the Center for the Study of the American South and the North Caroliniana Society.

Comments on “Myles Horton, Highlander, and the Beloved Community

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    Point of clarification–this historical marker image is from Monteagle, the original site of the school, whereas the fire referenced was in New Market, about 3 hours east.

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    “Or have the lessons nurtured at Highlander not had the kind of impact that Horton envisioned?”
    well clearly not see the late great John Lewis take a stand against free college and just about everything Rep. Clyburn has done around the last election and since, Social Gospel RIP…

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