Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Myles Horton

Too often, we see Southern history as a monolith. This is particularly true of the post-bellum period. Before the war, there is some awareness of Southern opposition to slavery—the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson, the Grimk√© sisters, etc. But after the Civil War, we assume that most, if not all, Southern whites fully supported Jim Crow and Southern segregation. That view continues through the Civil Rights movement. Even today, progressives often view southerners as backward racist hicks.

Of course there is some truth in all of this. Many southern whites today are racist, though perhaps an equal number are not. Quite a few southern whites supported the civil rights movement, though not nearly enough. And the vast majority of the South did embrace segregation. But a lot of Southern whites stood up for justice throughout their lives, often at great personal peril. Myles Horton is one such example.

Horton co-founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee in 1932. Monteagle, at the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, was hardly a bastion of liberalism in the Jim Crow South. Dominated by whites working small farms, the Cumberland Plateau had a national reputation for poverty, even for Appalachia. Monteagle was far from a rich place in 1932. In nearby Sewanee, the University of the South, a bastion of the Old South, taught the region’s elites but hardly in progressive values. Though the Monteagle didn’t have a large number of African-Americans in the early 1930s, the area fully embraced the conservative and often racist values of its era.

But it was here that Myles Horton and Don West founded the Highlander Folk School. Born in 1905 and a native of Savannah, Tennessee, Horton grew up in a deeply Calvinist family that, like many southern families that we never hear about, stressed Christian responsibility for both white and black families less fortunate than themselves. For many people, this background instilled a sense of Christian charity toward all people, but Horton took it a step further. He attended Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, where he began to get involved in social justice movement, coming out publicly in favor of John Scopes and attending a biracial conference at the Southern YMCA College in Nashville. His most formative experience as a young man came in 1927, when he directed a Vacation Bible School in Ozone, Tennessee. There he began to hold meetings at night with local people who were eager for information to help their lives, from new farm methods to public health issues to the economic conditions of their region. Horton came out of this determined to make a difference in Appalachia. He spent the next five years searching for the proper method. He moved to New York where he came under the influence of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who later heavily influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. Niebuhr helped politicize Horton, making connections between the social gospel and attacks on industrial capitalism. Horton then visited the aging Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago and other progressives. Determined to return to the South to organize for change, Horton, with the financial connections he made through Niebuhr, raised money to open his school in dirt poor Grundy County, Tennessee.

Grundy County had long been one of Tennessee’s poorest counties. Like other parts of the United States dominated by the coal industry, the county had failed to develop other economic options. Labor unions had a brief moment of success in the 1880s and 1890s but by the 1920s, had disappeared from the map. Horton couldn’t find a more suitable spot for his experiment. Horton believed that education would lead to social change and created an atmosphere that took into account what local people wanted to learn rather than a top-down educational program that had failed in the past.

Although more known for its civil rights work, Highlander's first major campaign involved assisting the CIO to help organize textile workers in Tennessee and the Carolinas, creating and directing labor programs throughout the South, and working to build a racially integrated labor movement throughout the region. Horton and his co-workers got involved in labor issues around Grundy County but they generally made only a very small difference, and usually ended up on the losing side. After 1939, they pretty much played a peripheral role in Grundy County itself, working on larger regional and national issues. While this no doubt disappointed Horton, it also gave Highlander a new sense of life after seven years of struggles. CIO leaders announced the formation of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee in March 1937 and Horton and Highlander jumped at the chance to get involved. They stayed involved in the CIO until around 1947, working to organize textile workers and promote racially integrated unions.

After World War II, and as the CIO began to purge its leftist unions and turn back toward the AFL, Highlander moved its focus to the growing civil rights movement. Beginning in 1953, Highlander began a series of workshops for community leaders, both black and white. In 1957, they started a Citizenship School project on South Carolina’s Sea Islands, teaching blacks to read and write so they could register to vote. The Sea Islands had more in common with the Caribbean than the rest of the US before the Civil War—blacks vastly outnumbering whites, living in extremely poor conditions, and working in labor-intensive crops. After the Civil War, these people were almost totally ignored. No bridge connected the Sea Islands to Charleston until the 1930s. Using mostly black organizers, Highlander managed to change the lives of people on the Sea Islands deeply, educating and politicizing them. By 1959, Horton felt confident that Highlander could slowly withdraw from the program, leaving it to local activists, and moving on to set up citizenship schools in other southern places, particularly in Georgia and west Tennessee. Highlander worked closely with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during this period and helped further the movement in deeply important ways.

Student activists convened at Highlander during the sit-in protests to make plans and figure out where to go next. Both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. trained at Highlander. Everyone thinks Rosa Parks came out of nowhere, but of course that is not true. Parks had long served as a NAACP activist in Montgomery and her training at Highlander came before she refused to give up her seat on the bus. She attended Highlander’s 1955 desegregation workshop and said years later, “That was the first time in my life I had lived in an atmosphere of complete equality with the members of the other race.”

Throughout their existence in Monteagle, Horton and Highlander came under attack from local and state authorities. This culminated in 1962 when the State of Tennessee confiscated their property and revoked their charter for being, as they referred to it, “a Communist training school.” Of course, the early 1960s was the height of the Cold War and segregationists constantly red-baited the civil rights movement, hoping to discredit it and forestall any change. Though they failed in that, they did manage to shape the civil rights movement as more conservative than perhaps it would have been. They could close Highlander through red-baiting, they could discourage southern whites from giving even tacit support, and they could marginalize leaders with radical backgrounds such as Bayard Rustin. Highlander particularly came under the wrath of Mississippi arch-segregationist Senator James Eastland, who held hearings investigating the supposedly communist ties of Horton and other Highlander leaders. In 1957, the IRS took away Highlander’s tax-exempt status because of its political activities, or more specifically for its political activities that the Eisenhower administration didn’t like. Later that year, the Georgia Commission of Education published a 4 page color pamphlet entitled Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee, which showed all the communists who were at Highlander, such as Martin Luther King and Pet Seeger, as well as photos of black men and white women dancing. Georgia then put these pictures on billboards around the state. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett used these photos as proof that the civil rights movement was led by communists. In 1959, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill investigating Highlander. Despite finding no actual evidence of illegal activities there. They did run into trouble for having beer on the premises. They might have even sold some to people. Oddly, the Tennessee legislature didn’t look more broadly into the sale of illegal liquor or moonshining throughout Grundy County. Finally, Highlander property was confiscated by the state and sold at auction.

However, Highlander simply moved to a new compound in the hills east of Knoxville, where it continued to give support to Civil Rights movement. The KKK led rallies past the center, they were firebombed, and gun shots occasionally busted through windows. Yet, they persisted. They played a big role in the Poor People’s Campaign, conducting workshops until the federal government shut down the shantytown that arose from the protests in DC. Horton continued to be involved after his retirement in 1970, though after the major goals of the civil rights movement were met in the late 1960s, Highlander struggled to find a new mission. They spent much of their time organizing Appalachian people to fight for economic rights. Myles Horton died in 1990 but Highlander continues to evolve. Today, it spends much of its energy seeking justice for the growing Latino communities of southern Appalachia.

Ultimately, this story has not centered on Myles Horton. But Horton shows the power of one person to spur others to action. The South desperately needed organizations like Highlander. There were people all over the region looking for a way to organize for racial, economic, and social justice. Horton provided the leadership to direct people into fulfilling these goals. Horton shows us a few important things: that many southerners of the early 20th century had great courage to stand up to the inequalities racking their region, that while movements arise from the workings of many people the role of strong leadership cannot be overestimated, and that there are so many heroes of the past that deserve our attention.

For further reading, see John M. Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School.