On 2 September 1957, Martin Luther King joined with the staff and the participants of a leadership training conference at Highlander Folk School to celebrate its 25th anniversary. In his closing address to the conference, King praised Highlander for its “noble purpose and creative work,” and contribution to the South of “some of its most responsible leaders in this great period of transition” (Papers 4:270).
In 1932, Myles Horton, a former student of Reinhold Niebuhr, established the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The school, situated in the Tennessee hills, initially focused on labor and adult education. By the early 1950s, however, it shifted its attention to race relations. Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings could take place, and served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists. Rosa Parks attended a 1955 workshop at Highlander four months before refusing to give up her bus seat, an act that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott.
Lead by Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins, and Bernice Robinson, Highlander developed a citizenship program in the mid-1950s that taught African Americans their rights as citizens while promoting basic literacy skills. Reflecting on his experiences with the Citizenship Schools and the emergence of new leaders from “noncharismatic people” who attended the training, Horton concluded that “educational work during social movement periods provides the best opportunity for multiplying democratic leadership” (Horton, Long Haul, 127).
Horton, who claimed he had first met King during the civil right leader’s junior year at Morehouse College, invited King to participate in Highlander’s anniversary celebration in 1957. While attending the celebration, an undercover agent sent by the Georgia Commission on Education took a photograph of King. The photo was sent throughout the South and used as a propaganda tool against King, with claims that it showed him attending a Communist training school.
Highlander continued to be a center for developing future leaders of the movement such as Marion Barry, Diane Nash, and James Bevel. It was closed in 1961 when the Tennessee government revoked its charter on falsified charges that the school was being run for profit and that it did not fulfill its nonprofit requirements. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took over the citizenship program that year, feeling that it offered, according to King, a plus for SCLC and the movement “in filling the need for developing new leadership as teachers and supervisors and providing the broad educational base for the population at large through the establishment of Citizenship Schools conducted by these new leaders throughout the South” (King, January 1961). Under the leadership of SCLC and the supervision of Clark, Dorothy Cotton, and Andrew Young, the schools eventually trained approximately 100,000 adults. In August 1961, Horton opened another school in Knoxville, Tennessee, called the Highlander Research and Education Center. He and the Center participated in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and, after King’s assassination, erected a tent complex at Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., holding workshops until police closed the encampment in June 1968.
Adams with Horton, Unearthing Seeds of Fire, 1975.
Anne Braden to King, 23 September 1959, in Papers 5:290–293.
Glen, Highlander, 1988.
Horton with Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl, Long Haul, 1990.
King, Memo, “Leadership Training Program and Citizenship Schools,” December 1960–January 1961, SCLCR-GAMK.
King, “A Look to the Future,” Address Delivered at Highlander Folk School’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary Meeting, 2 September 1957, in Papers 4:269–276.
King to Braden, 7 October 1959, in Papers 5:306–307.