We’d been parked for a good ten minutes in front of the rough-hewn stone chimney of a historic building on Old Highlander Lane, a dirt road outside Monteagle, Tennessee, when a neighbor walked up. He wore a black jacket with fur trim against the December cold and a baseball cap with the letters USA embroidered over a bald eagle and American flag montage. We politely rolled down the driver’s-side window and, at close range, I could make out the fine wrinkles on his pale pink face and the bloodshot blue eyes that matched his hat’s patriotic color scheme. The property we were on was empty and for sale but somehow the neighbor knew we weren’t potential buyers. “It’s just about gone, innit?” he said knowingly.
My companion, Scott Bates, an 89-year-old retired professor from the University of the South, in nearby Sewanee, acknowledged that, yes, little was left of the campus that had once stood on the property. Most of it had been burned down long ago. “Well, I know there must’ve been a house there,” the neighbor said, pointing to a barely discernable rectangle in the grass next to the backyard pond.
As the conversation progressed, taking detours back into the pleasantries that ought to have come first—“good fishing” in the pond the man told us; clean water, too, “we just had it tested”—it became clear he knew precisely why we, like the long parade of curious visitors, had driven down his dirt road. “We get buses coming here from the North with fifty to a hundred people,” he said.
Then the man asked Bates a question the professor had been asked many times before, including on the witness stand five decades ago: “Was it Communist?”
“No,” Bates replied. “It was Christian socialist.”
The man paused, thinking. “It was just before its time, wasn’t it?” he concluded before walking off.
The ruins of the shuttered Highlander Folk School, the grassroots education center where the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. planned the civil rights movement, is a site of pilgrimage. The only building that remains standing is the old library with the stone chimney. Its first volumes had been donated by Upton Sinclair. Now it was entirely free of books, one wing of an otherwise unsightly modern house that appeared to have accreted to it. When we first pulled up, I got out and peered through the window. The hall where Pete Seeger taught Martin Luther King to sing “We Shall Overcome” was now a game room outfitted for billiards and ping-pong.
When I met up with Bates earlier that morning at the Monteagle public library, he told me bluntly, “I’ll show you mostly ruins.” Then I climbed into his old gray Camry with a “permanent disability” tag hanging from the rear-view mirror, and we drove up US-41. With his blue Sewanee baseball cap keeping the low-hanging wintertime sun out of his watery blue eyes, Bates recounted how he joined Highlander’s board in 1957, not long after he moved to Sewanee. Highlander, he said, was “the only desegregated place in the South,” and soon the young professor was putting his body on the line. In 1960, Bates testified in the trial that ultimately closed it down. A classic McCarthyite witchhunt, much of the case hinged on the supposedly revelatory fact of whether or not Highlander flew the American flag. The first question Bates was asked on the stand was “Are you a Communist?” The professor later learned that the menacing men filling the first two rows of the public gallery were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Undeterred, in 1962, Bates had his twelve-year-old son file a suit to integrate the local public schools.
As we drove, Bates breathed life into the silent landscape with his tales. A grassy field beyond some wooden fence posts once belonged to May Justus, a literacy teacher at Highlander, and her companion, Vera McCampbell, an elementary school teacher. When the state cracked down on Highlander, the school board fired McCampbell. “Everyone in Monteagle had her for first grade,” Bates recalled, but she lost all her friends after the red-baiting. “They really killed her.” After she died, a mob of townspeople burned down her house for good measure.
The rectangle in the grass behind the library, next to the pond that was once Highlander’s infamously integrated swimming hole, was the remains of Highlander founder Myles Horton’s house. It too was burned to the ground a couple of years after the school had been padlocked.
A few yards up the road, we got out of the car and walked over to the small graveyard where Horton lies buried. Standing in the chilly air of the windswept cemetery, Bates told me that those house fires had remained unsolved for decades. Finally, he said, the preacher at a local church fessed up on his deathbed that he had incited the mob. “He felt he’d done a terrible sin,” Bates told me, standing over Horton’s grave. “That’s how we know.”
Before we left I stopped to examine a modest plaque, mounted by the Tennessee Historical Commission, that is the only explicit acknowledgement that anything significant had ever happened here. Driving away, we passed a building supplies store whose flagpole flew the Confederate battle flag in lieu of the Stars and Stripes.
Myles Horton was born in the mountains of Tennessee in 1905 into a Republican family. Although Tennessee was a Jim Crow state, much of the mountain South, where there had been few slaves, had opposed secession and remained loyal to the Party of Lincoln. Horton grew up with an almost heartbreaking naïveté about segregation; he didn’t experience racism—or even race, really—until he was in college, when he traveled to Nashville for a global conference of the YMCA. Swept up into a scene of cosmopolitan humanists, he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and came to know such figures as Reinhold Niehbur, Thomas Dewey, and Jane Addams. Through these connections, Horton met a Danish-born Lutheran minister who invited him to visit a “folk school” in Denmark.
Conceived as a way to preserve the distinctive culture of tiny Denmark under the onslaught of German newspapers and Hollywood movies, that folk school used self-directed adult education to afford the denizens of the Danish countryside the tools to resist homogenizing forces—community organizing methods, literacy lessons, modern farming techniques. Horton returned to the States determined to build just such a folk school in his native Tennessee, a place that would preserve the unique culture and music of Appalachia and be a space where poor Southerners of both races could organize for social change.
In 1932, Horton and a few like-minded thinkers founded Highlander at the steep western edge of the Cumberland Plateau, in Monteagle. It was an auspicious time. In the wake of the Depression, a biracial labor movement was sweeping the South. Workers in the steel mills of Birmingham were struggling to unionize across racial lines, and, in the cotton fields of Arkansas, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was organizing sharecroppers of both races (and genders) to strike against local landowners. Highlander soon became the crossroads where unionists from around the region could meet—from the Texas Pecan Workers Union to the Alabama Rubber Workers.
A regional hub, the school was a cultural melting pot for the entire South, a place where blacks from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia met whites from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and Tennessee, sipped moonshine, and traded songs. It was African-American members of the Charleston Tobacco Workers Union who brought their picket-line song, “We Will Overcome,” to Highlander in the 1940s. On campus, their adaptation of the black church hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” was reworked further by Pete Seeger into “We Shall Overcome.” Notably, Seeger, a self-avowed atheist, gave the song a more biblical resonance than it ever had in church.
As the Cold War set in, Highlander was abandoned by many of its old friends. The unions that had supported the folk school by renting out its facilities for conferences wanted nothing to do with it lest they be tainted by red-baiters eager to conflate any integrationist sentiment with Communism. The once-mighty Southern Tenant Farmers Union was declining into obscurity; Birmingham, an erstwhile bastion of labor radicalism, was forging a new reputation as the most segregated city in America, a place where blacks and whites were subject to arrest for playing checkers together. Growing up in 1950s Birmingham, my father recalls that it wasn’t simply that he and his peers didn’t know about the biracial political meetings that had taken place in their city just twenty years earlier; it was that they couldn’t conceive that any such meetings could ever have taken place.
Bucking the prevailing winds, Horton brashly declared that civil rights would be Highlander’s primary focus for the 1950s. In 1955, an Alabama seamstress named Rosa Parks arrived on campus. She had been sponsored by her white liberal employers, the Durr family, Montgomery patricians well on their way to committing social suicide on account of their impolitic anti-McCarthyite politics. Her trip to Highlander was “the first time in my life I had lived in an atmosphere of complete equality with members of the other race,” Parks later recalled. The experience “just washed away and melted a lot of my hostility and prejudice and feeling of bitterness against the white Southerner,” she said. “There was a great thing about black and white people sitting down to the same table eating.” Parks’s final class in the mountains, called “Finding Your Way Back Home,” focused on how to apply the lessons learned at Highlander in local communities throughout the region. In the popular lore of the civil rights movement, it all began when Parks, spur of the moment, decided she was too tired after a long day of work to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger. In reality, Parks’s challenge to Jim Crow was entirely premeditated; she had trained at Highlander four months before her arrest.
As civil disobedience swept the South after Parks’s arrest and the successful year-long Montgomery bus boycott, Highlander remained the go-to place for plotting movement strategy, drawing the wrath of reactionary politicians. Fitting neatly into the paranoid style of the American far-right, for Birchers and Klansmen, Highlander became the shadowy linchpin in the social protests that were rocking the region. Billboards appeared all over the South showing a certain Montgomery preacher attending the 25th anniversary conference, over Labor Day weekend in 1957, with the tag line martin luther king at communist training school. After a show trial featuring allegations of integrationism, illicit liquor sales, prostitution, miscegenation, Soviet infiltration, and failure to fly the American flag, the State of Tennessee shuttered Highlander in 1961. “You can padlock a building,” Horton said at the time, “but you can’t padlock an idea . . . It will grow wherever people take it.”
Case in point: “We Shall Overcome.” When Martin Luther King Jr. first heard Seeger’s version at Highlander, he endorsed it as a song “that really sticks with you.” The hymn we know today was completed during a 1959 pre-trial raid by state troopers ostensibly searching for moonshine. Held captive in a darkened seminar room, Highlander students sang the song, adding an impromptu verse, “We are not afraid, today.” The following year, the anthem caught on among attendees of a Highlander-sponsored workshop for the college student leaders of the nascent sit-in movement. By 1963, Joan Baez was singing it to hundreds of thousands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington. And in 1965, President Johnson himself was quoting it in his Texas drawl in a speech to a joint session of Congress urging passage of the Voting Rights Act.
While the State of Tennessee was auctioning off the padlocked property in Monteagle, Myles Horton was already preparing to reopen the school in Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center. That location, sitting on a section of Riverside Drive soon condemned by urban renewal, was short-lived, and in 1972 Highlander bought a 106-acre farm in nearby New Market, where the school endures to this day.
Though just twenty-five miles from downtown Knoxville, Highlander’s current incarnation feels much more isolated. Staff refer to the site at the end of a long, snaking switch-back road simply as “the hill.” Perched atop a ridge overlooking the Smoky Mountains, the vista is entrancing, an ever-changing kaleidoscope throughout the day as the peaks play hide-and-seek behind the mist. The handful of simple, wooden, summer-camp-looking buildings that dot the site all boast panoramic windows and porches lined with Adirondack chairs to take in the view. A quiet, monastic, contemplative emptiness pervades the campus.
My visit coincided with the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s seminal act of civil disobedience as well as the arrival of a quintet of new activists. “This is where Rosa Parks was just weeks before she rode the bus,” one newcomer, Myeisha Hutchinson of Birmingham, offered with bated breath. “That just blows people away.”
Of course, that’s not the literal truth. Rosa Parks trained at the original Highlander, nearly 200 miles away. And yet there is a continuity, stoked by the rituals of remembrance, that links Highlander’s previous locations and generations.
Hutchinson was one of five new Greensboro Justice Fellows. The initiative is named for the Greensboro Five, a multiracial group of labor organizers gunned down by a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis during a peaceful protest against hate groups in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979; it is funded by money from a civil settlement with the City of Greensboro, whose police force was notably absent from the publicly announced demonstration. Each year, five Southern activists—one for each Greensboro martyr—are brought to Highlander to plot organizing strategies tailored to the region. A separate Highlander fellowship, for social change through art, is supported by the We Shall Overcome Fund, made up of royalties from the commercial use of the song. As Scott Bates told me, in a rather surprising turn of phrase for a Christian socialist: “‘We Shall Overcome’: We own that!”
José Eduardo Sanchez, a Greensboro Justice Fellow who organizes undocumented laborers with the Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, said that of the five slain organizers he most identified with Cesar Cauce. Both are immigrants—Sanchez was born in Mexico, Cauce in Cuba—and both came to social justice causes through the labor movement. “I’ve always seen myself as a worker,” Sanchez told me. “My dad is a construction worker, to this day. He’s been a construction worker since he was fifteen years old. Before that he was working on the farm and all my family had been farmers. My mom, same thing, since she was a young girl she was a domestic worker cleaning and taking care of kids and cooking for the rich houses in our town.” In Southern boomtowns like Houston, the face of the most vulnerable workers has changed from black to brown, but the Highlander strategy for organizing them—to give community members the tools they need to organize themselves—has remained the same. In Sanchez, a first-generation immigrant organizing other first-generation immigrants, the idea of Highlander has been brought into the new century.
In explaining Highlander’s origins, Scott Bates mused, “In the 1930s, they were looking for a utopia.” Like a human being, as Highlander has aged, it has grown less starry-eyed. But, like Bates, it has never fully lost the hopes of youth. As Lis-Marie Alvarado, another younger activist at an older Highlander, put it, “Perhaps we’ll never reach utopia, something perfect, but at least we’re pushing the wheel for change. So for me that’s a very practical approach and that gives me a lot of hope. There will be others after me.” And we shall live in peace. Someday.
In Memory of Scott Bates, 1923–2013.
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