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A brief history of the Highlander Center

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 22, 2019 at 1:23 PM

After a March 29 fire destroyed a building at the historic Highlander Education and Research Center in New Market in an apparent attack by white nationalists, I began to reflect on the history of the center known throughout the world for its social justice work spanning more than 85 years.

Locals recently gathered for a candlelight vigil following the attack on the center most well-known for its central role in the civil rights movement and as a place where activists and leaders like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee once gathered and networked.

The center, founded by Myles Horton of Savannah, Tennessee, is probably one of the most important institutions in Appalachian history and American history as a whole.

To understand more about the Highlander Center and the spirit of what it stands for, it’s good to start with a look at its beginnings and its founder, going back to his time as an undergraduate at Cumberland University. It was then in 1927 that Horton first found himself in contact with black and foreign students.

Frustrated that he was unable to do things like go to a library with a black friend, Horton began to take an interest in social justice that would arguably help shape American history for decades to come.

In the summer of 1927, when Horton was organizing vacation Bible schools in Ozone, Tennessee, he held meetings encouraging members of the community to share their sociopolitical concerns and problems. According to the center’s website, this was what Horton considered the origins of the center.

In 1932, the center was officially founded in Monteagle, Tennessee. At first, its work was centered around labor issues, organizing working-class people fighting for unionization, better pay and fair workplace treatment. Its members also sought to fight segregation within the labor movement, when many unions were largely exclusive to people of color and immigrants.

The center then held its first integrated labor workshop in 1944. It was work such as this that ultimately led the Highlander to its role in the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

In the decades to come, the center and its activists endured many acts of intimidation and attempts at repression. The fire in March was just the latest in this long history of attacks.

The center has not only dealt with violent union busters and racist attacks over the years – it also experienced what many would consider state repression.

Following years of hysterical anti-Communist red-baiting in the ’50s against the center and its founder, the state of Tennessee revoked the Highlander’s charter and seized its lands in 1961.

After the property was seized, the Highlander moved to Knoxville until 1972 before moving to New Market, where the center continued to remain a hotbed of progressive, working-class organizing in East Tennessee.

By the time Horton died in 1990 of brain cancer, he had endured attempts on his life, as did other activists who trained and networked at the center.

Others who once gathered at the Highlander Center met a different fate. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. At this time, he was branching out with his social justice advocacy, opposing the Vietnam War and focusing on labor issues. Days before he was shot, King lead a march on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

King, like Horton, must’ve known his ideas and vision for a more equitable society would live on through others who came after him. 

Like King’s ideas, the ideas that founded the Highlander Center would have remained even if its arsons succeeded in destroying its physical buildings. That, I imagine, must be something that drives the center’s arsons nuts.

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