Things tend to be amplified in the South. Our accents are a little thicker, our hair-dos rise a little higher, and everyone’s heard that rumor about everything being bigger in Texas. Sometimes that amplification, for better or for worse, transfers to our beliefs and social systems. So when a matter of social unrest besets the country, the South can sometimes feel it the most, shaking us to our deep set roots. But just as we tend to feel it the most, we also search for a solution most passionately, striking back against injustice with just as heavy a hand as the blow that struck us. The Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center, exemplifies the revolutionary and humanitarian spirit that resides in the heart of Southerners and has done so for nearly a century. When a new inequity rises in our lands, Highlander summons its forces for good in order to level injustice squarely and fairly, whether it be a matter of race or class.
The Highlander Folk School was originally founded in 1932 in Grundy County, Tennessee. At the time of its founding, America was in the midst of the Great Depression, felt bitterly and strongly in the already toughened economies of the South where recovery from Reconstruction hardships was still in effect. Appalachia, where life had always been arduous, in part because of isolation from more urban communities, felt the Depression most intensely. Highlander’s founders, activist Myles Houton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski (a group which is representative of the variety of perspectives and passions found at Highlander throughout its history), founded the school in an effort to combat the particular effects of the Depression on the Southern, particularly Appalachian, community.
Where the entire country found itself challenged in their attempts to organize labor unions, Southern workers found it particularly difficult to do so, met with utter resistance to the idea by employers. The founders of Highlander recognized that many of its constituents did not have the knowledge or means to challenge the resistance of their employers. Highlander was founded in the hopes of providing undereducated Southerners with the tools to fight their own war against the biased system designed by their employers. The school’s mission statement, “to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains,” captures the original, still pervasive, spirit of the school. Throughout the ’30’s and ’40’s, Highlander focused on training local laborers and creating beneficial unions.
When in the 1950’s a new movement arose, Highlander immediately committed itself to the new cause. Racist sentiments tended to be more conspicuous in the South, but so were the efforts against them, including the Civil Rights Movement and Highlander’s involvement in it. Throughout the ’50’s, Highlander focused its efforts on desegregation and civil rights, helping train such future leaders as Rosa Parks, Septima Poinsett Clark, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Highlander developed literary programs, called Citizenship Schools, to help rural black communities meet literacy standards required for voting. Highlander’s efforts helped thousands of black Americans register to vote, and their program grew to be so large that they were forced to transfer it to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Highlander was met with much intransigence by other local communities, even condemned for creating “racial strife,” that it was briefly forced to close down and relocate. But nothing stopped Highlander from pursuing justice, and it continued to work within the Civil Rights Movement.
As the Civil Rights Movement settled in the ’60’s and ’70’s, Highlander found a new pursuit, one close to home. For decades the coalfields of Appalachia had served as minefields of health and safety hazards. Without other employment opportunities, local communities suffered under the yolk of the coalfields and their greedy proprietors. Highlander worked to make the coalfields a safer, healthier place for employees and even inspired the environmental justice movement in the region. Today, the Highlander Research and Education Center, now located in New Market, Tennessee, still works for justice and, as always, their primary tool is education. The South may be a hotbed of controversy, but thanks to passionate communities like Highlander, it’s a hotbed for healing too.