Highlander Folk School Essay

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Myles Horton (1905–1990) and Don West (1906–1992) founded the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee, at the height of the Great Depression in 1932. Now operating as the Highlander Research and Education Center, its goals continue the traditions of its founders: providing education and fighting against economic injustice, poverty, and prejudice. Through educational programs and related services, Highlander tries to provide grassroots leaders with the tools to create broad-based movements for social change. This entry looks at its history and contributions.

The early years of Highlander focused on the progressive labor movement. During these years, the school created its first education programs for workers. The aim of Highlander’s education programs was to empower workers and solidify the labor movement. As a means to achieve this goal, Highlander sought to train all poor laborers regardless of their race or ethnicity. Highlander became one of the first educational organizations in the South to integrate. By the late 1930s, it was regularly holding integrated meetings and educational workshops, although the first fully integrated workshop was not held until 1942.

Highlander’s commitment to desegregation began its second phase of social activity: the civil rights movement. The political landscape during the early 1940s was not ready for and fought against Highlander’s agenda of economic, political, and social equity. Prior to the civil rights movement, Highlander held integrated leadership workshops and educational programs that were attended by figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were then largely unknown outside of their communities. In an attempt to thwart Highlander’s growing contribution to the fight for equity, its opponents started using propaganda to tarnish its image, associating it with Communism.

Despite a smear campaign, however, Highlander’s resolve did not waiver. The epitome of this resolve was Highlander’s work with Esau Jenkins and the formation of “citizenship schools.” Citizenship schools began in the Sea Islands in South Carolina and led to the campaign to register African Americans to vote. The success of the citizenship schools was a catalyst for the civil rights movement, and Highlander was once again in the middle of mobilizing people for social and economic justice.

The opposition to Highlander from segregationists continued, however, and the state of Tennessee succeeded in shutting down the school. However, the leaders of the school had obtained a new charter for the Highlander Research and Education Center, and Highlander relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee. It remained there until 1971, when it moved to its current location in New Market, Tennessee, twenty miles east of Knoxville.

As the civil rights movement began to define its own leadership, Highlander turned its attention back to its original interest, helping the people of Appalachia. During the 1970s and 1980s, Highlander focused its efforts on environmental and quality of life issues confronted by the region. While maintaining its fight for environmental, social, and economic justice, Highlander in the 1990s increasingly turned its attention to the needs of immigrants—mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America—in the South by helping them politically organize and by providing an organization through which they could connect with different people and address their problems and needs.

The Highlander Research and Education Center has contributed to the social foundations of education on two primary levels: philosophically and practically. At the philosophical level, Highlander has demonstrated how education can be a catalyst for social change through collective civic action regardless of race, creed, or social class. At the core of this belief is the notion that people have the answers to the problems that they face. Through communication and the exchange of ideas, people are able to find solutions to the problems with which they are confronted. Highlander has also been an example of and exercise in democratic and socially responsible education that empowers the people. Highlander’s efforts in the field of social justice provide an exemplar of the possibilities of critical thought, action, and execution.


  1. Adams, F., & Horton, M. (1975). Unearthing seeds of fire: The idea of Highlander. Winston-Salem, NC: J. F. Blair.
  2. Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  3. Horton, M., Kohl, J., & Kohl, H. (1990). The long haul: An autobiography. New York: Doubleday.
  4. Jacobs, D. (Ed.). (2003). The Myles Horton reader: Education for social change. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  5. Highlander Research and Education Center: http://www.highlandercenter.org

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