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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,083

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This is the grave of Myles and Zilphia Horton.

Born in 1905 in Savannah, Tennessee, Horton grew up poor and white in the peak of Jim Crow America. There’s little reason to think that a person who grew up in these circumstances would later be one of the great fighters for justice in twentieth century America. But there was more working class ferment among southern whites at this time than is often remembered. Horton’s father was a member of the Workers Alliance, a local leftist worker organization. Despite being sharecroppers, his parents had aspirations of being educators but did not have the high school degree to do so. Given how much Horton learned from his parents, a core lesson of his life was that formal education was not necessary to teach people to do good.

Horton fought and strove and got himself an education, eventually ending up in New York at Union Theological Seminary. There, he became a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and like so many who studied under that great man, he found his views challenged and changed. As a southern white, there was almost no precedent for someone like Horton and the man he would become. He became committed to both economic and racial justice. He later said, “My first feeling about the wage system was that it was very unjust for somebody to have to work so hard and get so little, and for somebody else to have so much.” Good point. Also, as early as 1928, Horton protested over the segregation of YMCA college chapters and hosted a lunch that desegregated them.

It would have been pretty easy for Horton to stay in the North. There was plenty to be done on racial and economic justice there too and without the threat to life and limb that such work would have in the rural South. But Horton was a man of the rural South and that’s where he wanted to make change. So he and a couple of friends–Don West, a teacher from north Georgia who had protested against The Birth of a Nation while in high school there, and the Methodist minister from New Orleans James Dombrowski–decided to start a project was change was most needed. They opened what became known as the Highlander Folk Center in Monteagle, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau northwest of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1932.

In creating Highlander, Horton and friends were building off the European model of Progressive education, the same sort of thing that had influenced Jane Addams to build Hull House nearly a half-century before. They traveled to Denmark to learn about the folk schools there that attempted to empower rural people to take control over their own lives. This was a model they thought might fit the South. And they were not messing around. Highlander soon had a national reputation as a home for political radicalism in the place least likely to tolerate it. Highlander opened only a few years before the development of the CIO. That new union federation was less tolerant of racism than the AFL and it wanted to organize the South. Horton welcomed CIO organizers to Highlander to build connections with Black workers. It also welcomed Black activists looking to fight for civil rights. Moreover, Highlander was strictly unsegregated. This absolutely did cause discomfort among a lot of white southern leftists, who like West and Horton, had to overcome the prejudices of being a white southerner at this time, but Horton was not compromising on segregation at all. It was accept it or go home.

Then in 1935, Horton married Zilphia Johnson. Her background was even more unlikely than his because her father was a coal mine superintendent who later bought the mine. So to say the least, there was no sympathy for the working class in that family. She was born in 1910 in Spadra, Arkansas, trained in music, and went to college at the University of the Ozarks to study music teaching. She came under the influence of a local Presbyterian minister who was organizing her father’s workers into the Progressive Mining Union. When her father discovered this, he disowned her. In 1935, she attended a workshop at Highlander, met Myles Horton, fell in love, and they married. Between 1938 and 1956, Horton was the drama and music director for the school. This was an important job. The folk school ideal placed a lot of emphasis on performance and building solidarity through working class productions. Moreover, Zilphia, along with Guy Carawan and Candie Carawan, did a ton of work uncovering old folk songs from the South that could be repurposed for social movements. This included the old spiritual that became “We Shall Overcome,” which of course became the anthem of the 50s and 60s civil rights movement. Unfortunately, in 1956 she died in just about the worst way possible–she was working in the office and reached to grab a glass of water. Instead, she grabbed a glass of typewriting cleaning fluid, which is super poisonous. That’s….a tough way to go. She was 45 years old.

Of course, all of this organizing led to critics, by which I mean the entire white power structure of the South, saying that this little rural school was teaching communism, by which they meant civil rights and unions. To take on this power structure in the years surrounding World War II was not for the faint of heart and I think it’s worth remembering just how brave the Hortons and their friends were. When the CIO started Operation Dixie in 1946, it’s flawed and ultimately mostly failed attempt to organize the South, Highlander played a central role of operations, including hosting difficult but necessary interracial gatherings among the southern working class. Then when the classic era of the civil rights movement got underway, Highlander again offered its expertise for these young organizers to learn and build community and get to know each other. The Freedom Schools that SNCC created in Mississippi during Freedom Summer were based on the folk school model that Horton had brought to the movement. After all, most of the SNCC major activists had gone through at least one training at Highlander.

We need to step back here and consider what not understanding Highlander and Horton’s life does to our discussions of social movements. Think about Rosa Parks, for instance. The public memory of Parks is as this somewhat random woman who decided to take a stand (or a seat more accurately) and not move as a singular protest against Jim Crow because her feets were tired. First, this is a conflation of two different women. Parks, as a middle-class as they came, would never have used the term “feets.” That’s a working class woman in Montgomery. Second, and more importantly, Parks already was a trained activist at Highlander before she made that choice. It’s true enough that Parks did not plan on choosing that day to start a protest against segregation. She was indeed just done with it. But by not focusing on her training at Highlander, we forget that a) the civil rights movement had been planning and training for twenty years before 1955 and b) that there were networks of people all working on the struggle. It’s a less full history and one that makes things about individuals rather than the social movement and organizing that sustained them. Parks herself credited Highlander with providing her the training that allowed her to do this.

Of course, white authorities in the South knew very well that Parks and Martin Luther King and all these other leaders had trained there. Tennessee conservatives had hated Highlander ever since it opened and sought a reason to close it. Finally, in 1961 they shut it down, using a technicality over the fact that alcohol was served there to say they were serving without a license. This was because they allowed attendees to leave coins to cover the cost of beer. Completely bogus. But that was a cover for the real violation of not being segregated.

But Horton was not someone who was just going to let the state of Tennessee run over him. Yeah, they had the land confiscated. They could however buy new land and rebuild, which is what they did in the town of New Market, east of Knoxville. Local authorities there were no more favorable to Highlander than they were 125 miles away, but they had no choice but to accept its existence. So Horton oversaw the reorganization of Highlander. He stayed as the head of the center until 1977, when he retired. But he remained involved in his life project for the rest of his life, which ended in 1990. He was 84 years old.

Horton’s philosophy is perhaps best summed up by this quote: “When people criticize me for not having any respect for existing structures and institutions, I protest. I say I give institutions and structures and traditions all the respect that I think they deserve. That’s usually mighty little, but there are things that I do respect. They have to earn that respect. They have to earn it by serving people. They don’t earn it just by age or legality or tradition.”

Myles and Zilphia Horton are buried in Summerfield Cemetery, Grundy County, Tennessee, which is near the original Highlander building, which still stands though it is private hands.

If you would like this series to visit other white allies of the civil rights movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Viola Liuzzo is in Southfield, Michigan and Virginia Foster Durr is in Montgomery, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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