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This Day in Labor History: October 9, 1961

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On October 9, 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a Tennessee state Supreme Court order revoking the charter of the Highlander Folk School. This allowed the state to shut down the greatest organizing space in the South, one that had played a critical role in organizing both the labor and civil rights movements, though it would immediately reopen in a different part of the state.

The Highlander Folk School was the brainchild of Myles Horton. A white man who grew up in southern Tennessee, it seems unlikely that massive organizer for labor and civil rights would be his life mission. But Horton grew up more urbane than a lot of other small-town southerners, attending integrated YMCA events for instance and discovering he was horrified when a Chinese woman he was with was denied service at a segregated Nashville restaurant. That got Horton thinking. In 1929, he spent a year at the Union Theological Seminary, where he got to know Reinhold Niebuhr. Like many figures in the civil rights movements, Horton found Niebuhr’s social gospel tremendously inspiring. He attended Brookwood Labor College, the experimental organizing training ground established in 1921 and he wondered if he could open something like this in the South. He continued training for this, studying at the University of Chicago, spending time at Hull House (Jane Addams was still running it as an old woman), and then going to Denmark to study the Danish folk school tradition.

In 1932, Horton, along with his friends Don West and Jim Dombroski decided to give it a shot. They opened the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a tiny town on the Cumberland Plateau northwest of Chattanooga. This was an unusual place for what would become a leftist center of organizing. It was a poor reason at the southern tip of Appalachia and had a local organizing tradition in the coal industry, but was also a heavily evangelical area with a strong racial hierarchy. Nonetheless, the Folk School soon became the de facto organizing center for the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the South.

At the end of World War II, the CIO knew it had to organize the South or all the union jobs it had organized over the past decade would start moving to the South, which is of course exactly what happened. So it engaged in Operation Dixie, a widespread attempt to organize the region. Now, Operation Dixie did not go well because the CIO hedged on the race question in a way that undermined the entire idea. Basically, the workers most excited to join unions were Black. But the CIO wanted to organize white workers too. So it downplayed its civil rights unionism, despite many of its organizations believing strongly in that. That managed to alienate Black workers while never alleviating the suspicions of racist white workers. But this was not the fault of the Highlander Folk School. Highlander had shown that workers of both races would in fact work together, or at least sit in the same room together while they learned. This wasn’t exactly a solution for the racial divisions of the southern working class, but it went farther than anyone else had. In fact, the CIO was already started to disinvest in HIghlander by 1946. Highlander had held various training classes for workers throughout World War II but the CIO became more concerned with controlling its rank and file than with engaging in radical organizing of the type happening in rural Tennessee. It feared being labeled as communist and it prioritized the economic needs of its rank and file than the large scale change Horton and company attempted to foster.

What Highlander taught workers was a combination of labor history, radical economics, racial harmony, public speaking, parliamentary law, shop-steward training, and farmer-labor cooperation. In short, it was an agenda that combined traditional southern issues with modern industrial organizing efforts. But a lot of times, white workers really weren’t prepared for the integrated environment. At the 1946 worker training school, a group of white workers basically freaked out over integration and demanded segregation or they would leave. Highlander said that if whites wanted to sit by themselves at meals they could, but it wasn’t going to force anything. But still, this really undermined the atmosphere. It later turned out that one of the angry white workers was a Ku Klux Klan supporter and possibly a member. So that was the challenge of organizing in America, and not only in the South. Eventually, the CIO moved away from supporting Highlander at all. The school had to refocus its efforts away from the labor movement.

While Highlander played an invaluable role in helping to organize the South’s workers, it became far more famous for its civil rights organizing. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King trained there. So did John Lewis and Julian Bond. People such as Septima Clark taught there. It was here where Guy Carawan reworked the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome” to create the anthem of the civil rights movement. In fact, Parks had her training at Highlander four months before she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery. This wasn’t some tired old woman. This was a trained civil rights organizer.

The CIO stuff made Tennessee officials nervous. They could barely tolerate it so long as it focused on workers. But when it focused explicitly on training the Black freedom struggle, that became a fundamental threat to the white supremacy that was the South’s ruling ideology. Using all sorts of ridiculous laws, such as claiming it improperly served alcohol, Tennessee sought to take over the property. It claimed that Highlander was registered as a nonprofit and therefore could not sell anything. So it took the building over and closed it down when the Supreme Court intervened. This did not stop Horton or Clark or Carawan or the others so committed to the project. The next day, it reopened in a building it rented in Knoxville and later moved to another rural location, in Haymarket, Tennessee.

Now called the Highlander Center, it remains committed to organizing workers and people of color today. In the last twenty years or so, it has moved heavily into organizing the large Latin American immigrant communities that have moved to east Tennessee and throughout the South, doing a lot of work in Spanish and indigenous languages to support farmworker rights and other struggles that still define a region and a nation with biases and oppression directed toward people on both a race and class basis.

Incidentally, I was just out at the site of the original Highlander a few days ago. I did not find the building proper, but there’s a nice historical marker. Evidently the building still exists but is not in good shape. It doesn’t look like it was in great shape at the time for that matter, at least in the above picture.

This is the 412th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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