We Shall Still Overcome: Highlander Folk School Celebrates 75th Anniversary

By Biggers, Jeff | National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

We Shall Still Overcome: Highlander Folk School Celebrates 75th Anniversary


Biggers, Jeff, National Catholic Reporter


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On a hot summer evening in 1959, plainclothes police officers stormed the main room of the Highlander Folk School--an interracial adult education center housed in the eastern Tennessee mountain town of Monteagle-where 40 or so students were viewing a film and swigging on punch. Within the hour, Highlander associates were arrested for possession of liquor--a thinly veiled excuse to shut down the school for its radical ways.

While the police ransacked the school, the students began to sing an old labor and gospel song they had learned earlier that day from the staffs young music teacher Guy Carawan:

   We are not afraid, we are not afraid
   We are not afraid today
   Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
   We shall overcome someday.

Launched in 1932 in an area mired by deforestation, closed mines, subsistence farming and widespread impoverishment, the Highlander Center celebrated its 75th anniversary in September as an extraordinary American institution that recognized the ability of mountaineers and Southerners to determine their own fate in volatile times. While it would have a major impact on the labor, farmer and Appalachian revival movements, Highlander's role in the early stages of the civil rights movement deserves to be excavated.

By 1953, desegregation efforts by Highlander-trained people were already underway in eastern Tennessee communities and towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. Highlander drew up the first curriculum in the South to prepare teachers and community members for the transition to integration, and launched a series of workshops.

Rosa Parks, an activist with the NAACP in Montgomery, Ala., traveled to Highlander in the summer of 1955. The school's interracial residential experience astounded Parks. She took part in the cooking, dining, dancing and singing among white and black students. In a later interview with radio commentator Studs Terkel, Parks recalled how the Highlander experience had been a first in her life, "where we all were treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with the artificial boundaries of racial segregation."

Parks found the Highlander director, Myles Horton, to be the "first white man" she could trust. Speaking at a gathering 35 years later, she recalled Horton's ability to "strip the white segregationists of their hardcore attitudes and how he could confuse them, and I found myself laughing when I hadn't been able to laugh in a long time."

On Dec. 1, 1955, four months after the workshop, Rosa Parks set off the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery to a white passenger. …

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