WE SHALL OVERCOME: The Civil Rights & Folk Music Epicenter of the South

Highlander Folk School: Civil rights training from MLK Jr. & Rosa Parks to Pete Seeger & Lead Belly

Martin Luther King jr Rosa Parks

by Jason Galaz
From The Rambler archives – 2015

Imagine a school that taught you “how to think” as opposed to “what to think.” Envision a place that empowered you to analyze your experience to transform your current situation. You could change the world with an idea like that. This “school of thought” formed as a revolutionary institution that has changed the course of history worldwide for oppressed peoples ranging from coal miners to African Americans living in the South during segregation.

I stumbled upon this school today by chance. After a two day camping retreat at Foster Falls, Tennessee with my wife and friends I decided to drive a bit in down the country roads to explore the region. I came by an old building with a worn hand painted sign that read “BAKER’S ANTIQUES.” We had been peering in to the windows as it was closed when we heard a friendly hello from next door. It was a man by the name of Pete Baker who was eager to give a quick history of the store that was built in 1947 by his father. The original sign provided by Double Cola had the drink logo above “Baker & Sons Cash Store” still hanging on the worn façade of the old building but had been painted over with the new company name. Pete also mentioned that we should visit the Grundy County Historical Society while in town and to learn about the Highlander Folk School.

That’s when he said these words that would intrigue me for the rest of the day and ultimately change my life:

“You know, Martin Luther King Jr. used to train down here to learn about being a civil rights activist? There’s talk around here amongst some folks that Rosa Parks got the idea to do the bus thing while she was here.”

I thought he was teasing me or about to lead in to some sort of racist punch line which is all too common in the South and twice as much in rural areas like this. But I was wrong. Pete had been here since the 1940’s as a child and had seen it all. He recognized the cultural relevance and wanted us wandering tourists to know about it. I came home and went down the google rabbit hole to learn as much as I could about the school. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read about a place in a rural mountainous Tennessee that has played such a significant role in changing America in to what it is today.

Eleanor Roosevelt

The Highlander Folk School opened 1932 by activist Myles Horton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski. It originally helped local coal miners to organize their own unions to cut down on the 12 hour work days and low wages. They received support and visits by many influential people, including Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. The school focused it’s attention on the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s. Many of the most prolific civil rights leaders came to Highlander to enrich themselves. With students like civil rights Rosa Parks , Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950’s you could consider Myles Horton a father of the movement and cause of social change in the South during segregation times. They were harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, raided by state troopers, and physically beat many times. A local church had railed against it and the Klan had burnt one of the buildings to the ground. Eventually the state found cause to shut down the school with trumped up alcohol sales charges for keeping beer in the fridge and letting people chip in on it with a quarter. When the sheriff pad locked the doors Myles laughed and told him “YOU CAN PADLOCK A BUILDING BUT YOU CAN’T PADLOCK AN IDEA.”

The school reformed as the Highlander Research and Education Center near Knoxville. Today it focuses on issues including democratic participation, economic justice, Latin & African American youth, immigrants, LGBT and poor Appalachian communities.

Highlander Folk School

The Highlander Folk School gathered in small classes of no more than 20-30 attendees. All races were treated equally from the beginning and mixed classes were common. This was illegal in public schools at the time but Highlander was privately owned. It’s musical relevance is staggering. The school gained support and was visited by many artists from the 1930’s on including Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger. It is believed that Zilphia Morton, Myles’ wife, had learned an earlier version of “We Shall Overcome” from tobacco union strikers and introduced it to Pete Seeger with the new lyrics who performed it often. The song was originally included in a hymnal with no specific authorship credited. There is another famous addition to the song lyrics claimed by Myles Horton of “We Are Not Afraid” that was sung by students during a raid of vigilantes and police on the Highlander Folk School. The song was made famous by being sung in unison by protesters all over the world during multiple struggles.

In a 1981 interview with Myles it was said that although Lead Belly had not been to the Highlander he was a strong supporter and did many benefit concerts for the school. One was in New York City where he debuted an unfinished version of “Bourgeois Blues” with the support of Zilphia Horton back stage.

In 2014, the Tennessee Preservation Trust placed the original Grundy County school building on it’s list of the ten most endangered historic sites in Tennessee.

I’ve just scratched the surface of what all went down at the Highlander Folk School and its effects on our society and social policies. In a time of darkness, when state sanctioned racism was the law of the land, a beacon of light shined from a mountain top in Tennessee. Thank God.

Watch this 2 hour interview to get the perspective from Myles Horton himself.

Pete Seeger Woody Guthrie

Tennessee Historical Marker

Highlander BBQ

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