Horton: The Radical Hillbilly
By UAW Region 8 Webmaster John Davis
to the length of this piece, you may choose a shortened version
by clicking here, but the story of Myles Horton is worth the time)
History has a habit of recording the feats of the
warmongers, the capitalist and the socially elite. However, unfortunately
those who strive for the betterment of others seldom are chronicled
in the pages of history. One such individual who dedicated his life
in service to others was Myles Horton.
Myles Horton was a pioneer in the cause of social
justice within the Southern Region of America. He founded the Highlander
Folk School in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee, about 55 miles northwest
of Chattanooga. The school was dedicated to teaching blacks and
whites to challenge entrenched social, economic and political strictures
of a segregated society. Because of his stand on social justice,
Horton came under attack by the rich and powerful.
In The Beginning
Born in 1905 in Savannah, Tennessee, Myles Horton was raised in
a home that knew the struggles of poor working people. The grandson
of an illiterate mountain man, his parents were both schoolteachers
and devoted to God and community. His Mother’s motto of “God
is love and therefore you love your neighbors” was deeply
instilled in young Myles.
In 1924 he entered Cumberland College in Tennessee
and began his study of education. While working on his college degree,
Horton landed a summer job teaching Bible classes to the poor mountain
people in nearby Ozone, Tennessee for the Presbyterian Church. It
was this experience that convinced the young man to dedicate his
life to the struggle for social justice in a world that was organized
against the poor. While the Bible lessons were important, he felt
the Church was not meeting all the needs of the native people so
he developed a desire to place the lessons of the Bible into practice
by making a difference. Again and again he witnessed individuals
who had sold their land or logging rights to big companies at a
fraction of their value. The folk people were then left without
land or jobs and ended up working for these companies that had taken
advantage of them for menial wages. His own religious convictions
propelled him to find a way to be an advocate for these people.
Upon completion of his degree from Cumberland College,
he entered the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan where he
was influenced by the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian
teacher who was a staunch advocate for the rights of the poor. Myles
Horton found in Niebuhr a soul whose convictions for others fueled
his own desire to work for others. As his studies at Union continued,
Horton developed an idea for a school that would teach the crafts
and wisdom of the Appalachian People while empowering them to stand
against the greed and tyranny of the corporate establishment that
was taking advantage of the people.
At a folk dance he met two Danish-born ministers
and told them of his plans to open a “Southern Mountain School”
to capture and teach the traditions and worth of the mountain people.
They told him about the Danish Folk schools which were based on
the same principals. Myles Horton began reading everything he could
find on these schools and in 1931 he traveled to Demark to view
them first hand. On Horton’s last night in Denmark, December
25, 1931, he wrote: “I can’t sleep, but there are dreams.
What you must do is go back, get a simple place, move in and you
are there. The situation is there. You start with this and let it
grow. You know your goal. It will build its own structure and take
its own form. You can go to school all your life, you’ll never
figure it out because you are trying to get an answer that can only
come from the people in the life situation.”
The Highlander Folk School
In 1932 at the age of 27, Myles Horton returned to Tennessee and
opened the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, about 55 miles northwest
of Chattanooga. From the onset the school taught the
importance of communication, including, folk songs, story telling
and drama. The poor working people of the hill country had proud
traditions and the school helped capture their history and traditions
while emphasizing leadership and speaking out on behalf of the working
poor. The Danish Folk Schools were supported heavily by the trade
unions of Europe, so the lessons Horton learned helped solidify
his union convictions. However, the Danish folk schools were not
his first exposure to organized labor. While still in high school,
he worked in a tomato packing plant and helped stage a strike and
negotiated better wages for the workers.
In the post depression years of the 1930s, the poor
were taken advantage of especially in the mining and textile industries
of the southeast. The design of educational programs at the Highlander
School promoted the idea of an exchange of information as opposed
to the traditional teacher – student relationship. This allowed
everyone – including the teacher to learn from the classes.
The Wilder Strike
The opening of the Highlander School in 1932 coincided with a strike
at the coal mines located along the Cumberland Plateau, a chain
of mountains through middle and eastern Tennessee. The coming of
the Industrial Revolution had stroked the nation’s need for
an energy source and coal was that source. The Appalachian Mountain
chain was infrastructure, cities and railroads. The answer to this
problem ended up being the concept of “Company Towns”,
where the coal companies would build a city dedicated to mining
coal. The company owned the school, the homes, the churches and
the stores. The coal company agents went traveling through the mountain
chains purchasing land or mineral rights for very little money.
Without their land, the residents found themselves forced to work
in the mines on land their families had once owned. Being caught
up in the concept of the “company town”, the workers
lived in the coal companies house, bought their supplies at the
company store, got their mail at the company post office, sent their
children to the company school and worshipped at the company church.
Of course none of these services were provided for free, with the
company deducting the expense from the workers pay. For all practical
purposes the workers ended up indentured servants on the same land
that had been in their families for generations.
Wilder was a company town about 100 miles from the
Highlander School. The depression hit the coal companies hard, with
the reduction of building and manufacturing and the reduced demand
for coal. The workers at Wilder did not have a union until 1931,
as each was forced to sign a “yellow-dog” contract vowing
to never join a union. However, the economic crush of the depression
forced the companies to scale back on coal production and more and
more workers found themselves in a situation of not earning enough
to cover what they owed the company to live in their house, let
along having enough left over to buy food at the company store.
The workers decided to form a union in hopes of winning better wages
to feed their starving families. In the area there were three coal
companies who competed against each other. The companies made a
pack to stick together to keep the union out, by shutting the mines
down until the workers agreed to return without a union. One of
the companies double crossed the other two by staying open, so the
remaining companies reopened recognizing the union and offering
a contract that had no pay increases, but a promise not to cut wages.
The company reneged on the contract and offered
a new one that included 20% wage cuts and forced the workers to
void the union. On July 9, 1932 the union struck the mines and a
year long struggle would begin for the workers at Wilder. The companies
brought in scabs from surrounding areas to work the mines and began
a series of terror tactics against the striking workers.
Mean while down in Monteagle, Myles Horton learned
of the struggles of the striking miners in Wilder. He traveled the
100 miles in late November to see for himself what was going on.
He found the coal companies had shut off the electricity to the
company houses and had the doors removed even though it was a bitterly
cold winter. The Red Cross had sent food to the strikers, but the
local Red Cross Chapter was ran by the wife of a superintendent
at the mine so the food was distributed to the scabs instead of
Myles Horton stayed in the home of the Miners Union
President Jim Crownover and could not believe what he was seeing.
Horton would write “We found the people drawn and pale from
malnourishment, although their resolve was strong and unshaken.
They were held together by their common misery. The town was divided,
the scabs living in the camp houses on one side, the strikers on
the other. There was a "dead line" and one crossed it
at his peril. On the strikers' side, the water and electricity were
cut off. It was my first inkling that folk could starve to death
in the United States of America in plain view of a largely indifferent
Myles Horton enlisted the help of the students and
teachers at the Highlander School to aide the striking workers.
Food and clothing donations began pouring in from around the state,
as Horton began writing letters and sending editorials to papers
around the south telling of the plight of the people in Wilder.
As the strike worn into the winter, violence erupted between the
strikers and the scabs, which were aided by the company. The National
Guard was sent in to “protect” the company assets, when
in fact the strikers had to meet in the dark to prevent speakers
from being shot by snipers the company hired.
On one of his trips to Wilder, Myles Horton was
arrested by a National Guard officer and charged with “getting
information and carrying it back and teaching it.” The charges
were eventually dropped, but this would be the first of many arrests
for Myles Horton. He continued to write to newspapers about the
violence and outlandish treatment the coal companies issued. Union
official Barbey Graham was murdered by two gunmen brought in by
the coal companies. The killers were brought to trial, but acquitted
on the grounds of self-defense. This was absurd, because Graham
had been shot ten times and his head busted open. The violence intensified
after the murder of Graham and the strikers were evicted from their
homes. Myles Horton went to the chief of TVA and persuaded him to
hire many of the strikers on the Norris Dam project while others
found work in President Roosevelt’s WPA and CCC projects.
Aligning The Highlander Folk
School For Activism
From the experience Myles Horton learned the importance of teaching
union leaders bargaining and union business. These topics became
integrated in the curriculum at Highlander as the schools purpose
turned more toward collective bargaining and social activism.
The Wilder strike brought a lot of publicity to
the Highlander School, but it wasn’t all positive. The wealthy
and powerful feared the school could become involved in issues that
could affect them, so a smear campaign was started to paint Myles
Horton as a communist. This was an accusation that Horton would
be forced to deny again and again. The powers that be tried every
dirty trick in the book to discredit the work the Highlander School
was doing, for it was the education and purpose the school provided
to its students the wealthy feared the most. By separating people
by race, by gender, by nationality or by religion, the effectiveness
of their solidarity is compromised. Horton realized this and sought
ways to avoid these battles with the teachings of the Highlander
School. He came away from the Wilder incident with a determination
to make a difference and knew the key was education and began building
a curriculum that would provide working class people with the tools
they needed to stand and fight.
In 1937 he joined the staff of what was then called
the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and organized one
of the first CIO locals in the southern textile industry. Horton
tried to form a coalition of farm workers, but found race to be
a barrier in bringing the workers together. It became apparent that
to bring workers together he would have to find ways to remove the
barriers that separated them. Miles Horton then turned his attention
toward developing civil rights classes for both blacks and whites
to break down the racial barrier that separated working people.
Highlander Folk School and
In 1934 the first black speaker presented a workshop at Highlander,
but the workshops weren’t full integrated until 1942. While
Highlander was known for progressive thinking, this was still the
South and such things weren’t done. In 1944 the leaders of
UAW locals attended a fully integrated workshop, defying the local
customs and the customs of much of organized labor. The Highlander staff
was fully convinced that success in the labor movement would require
addressing the issue of racism and breaking down the bounds of segregation.
It was during this time that opponents of the school began comparing
the teachings with communism and began working to silence Myles
Horton and the Highlander Folk School.
By 1953 the Highlander Folk School found itself
in a transition from concentrating primarily on labor education
to shifting more emphasis on teaching the principles of civil rights.
Myles Horton and his staff believed that solidarity between the
region’s workers was the key to winning the battle over poverty
and oppression of workers. In addition, the Supreme Court was gearing
up to tackle the Brown Verses the Board of Education Case, which
would have a dramatic impact on the South regardless of the outcome.
The school decided to focus their attention on school
desegregation, voter education and voter’s rights. As Highlander
began offering workshops on these subjects, more and more of the
Civil Rights Movement Leaders began to attend the sessions. It was
at these sessions that Highlander integrated their long standing
policy of using story telling and singing to aide in the education
and songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Keep
Your Eyes on the Prize” were taught to the participants who
carried them back to the work in their home areas.
Highlander helped launch the “Citizen Ship
Schools” across the South, whose purpose was to teach African-Americans
to read so they could pass the literacy test required for voting
rights in much of the South. These schools would provide the basis
for the organized Civil Rights Movement across the South.
In 1955 a young African-American lady by the name of Rosa Parks
attended a desegregation workshop being held at the Highlander Folk
School. Mrs. Parks had been working with the NAACP in Montgomery,
Alabama to assist with voter registration for minorities. Later
she would make the statement that she left Highlander uncertain
as to if the people in Montgomery would stick together to fight
segregation. She went on to say that her time at Highlander was
the first time she “lived in an atmosphere or equality with
members of the other race.”
However, she returned to the Highlander School a
year later and 100 days into a bus boycott that would eventually
last 381 days as 50,000 people of Montgomery did stick together.
During that visit she and Myles Horton discussed at great length
the hardships and struggle the bus boycott required on those 50,000
who were walking everyday, but the victory in the end proved to
be worth the sacrifice. Rosa Parks last visited the Highlander School
in 1990 to attend the memorial for Myles Horton following his death.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
On the 25th anniversary of the Highland Workshops in 1957, Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. was the featured speaker. The growing Civil Rights
Movement made the segregationist nervous in the South and they placed
the bulk of the blame at the feet of the Highlander Folk School.
The Georgia Commission on Education published a slanderous piece
of propaganda called Highlander Folk School: Communist Training
School, Monteagle, Tennessee. Billboards and newspapers carried photos
of a black man dancing with a white woman at the Highlander School,
fueling public sentiment against the workshops.
Even though dignitaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt
and United Nations Under-Secretary Ralph Bunche lauded the accomplishments
of the school, the Tennessee Supreme Court set about to shut the
In 1957 Mississippi Senator James Eastland was serving
as chairman of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee and launched
and investigation on the Highlander Folk School alleging communist
ties. Myles Horton repeatedly denied that neither he nor the Highlander
School had any link to communism. While on the stand during the
Supreme Court hearing Myles Horton was asked to acknowledge the
accusations of his politics but refused, but did not plead the Fifth
Amendment. He testified for four hours, defending the school and
his own reputation against the claims of communist ties. While no
evidence was found linking Highlander with any subversive group,
Tennessee Attorney General Albert Sloan filed a suit to have the
schools charter revoked based on allegations the school was conducting
integrated studies which was against Tennessee State law.
On July 31, 1959 Sloan lead a group of twenty sheriffs
deputies to the school and arrested a biracial group attending the
Highlander Citizenship School on the grounds of integration. Sloan
bragged to the Chattanooga Daily Times “the members of the
legislative committee gave me information mostly on integration
and communism, and I wasn’t satisfied I could be satisfied
at that. I thought maybe this
was the best shot and I think now I’ll be successful.”
Sloan finally got an injunction against the school and padlocked
the doors temporarily. In the fall of 1959 Myles Horton temporarily
transferred the function of the Citizenship Schools to the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference. “You can padlock a building,”
Myles Horton stated. “You can’t padlock an idea. Highlander
is an idea. You can’t kill it and you cant close it in. This
workshop is part of the idea. It will grow wherever people take
The Highlander Research and
Education Center is Born
The Tennessee Supreme Court trail ended in February of 1960 with
the schools charter being revoked and the buildings padlocked. A
few days later many of them mysteriously burned to the ground and
the land was sold at public auction with Myles Horton never seeing
a cent for his personal property that was attached to the grounds.
Undeterred, Horton filed for a new charter and opened the Highlander
Research and Education Center never Knoxville, Tennessee in 1961.
As a footnote to the tragic tale of the Monteagle location, lawyers
from the area bought the building that housed the Highlander Library
and turned it in to an exclusive club, flaunting segregation in
the building that housed so much work for integration.
Just as the mythical Phoenix Bird would consume
itself in fire at the end of its life and be reborn among
the ashes, the idea that Myles Horton spoke of was reborn from the
ashes of the Highlander Folk School as the Highlander Research and
Education Center. Myles Horton began to transfer the leadership
of the Citizenship Schools to the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference and turned his attention toward the struggles of the
people of Appalachia.
Appalachian Focus Returns
In 1971 the Highlander Research and Education Center moved from
Knoxville to a ridge top farm new New Market, Tennessee. The Appalachian
Mountain chain was riddled with poverty, growing environmental concerns
and was falling within the grip of corporate control. Working with
the Appalachian Alliance, Highlander began a study of land ownership
of Appalachia and documented the take over of the mountains by the
corporations and the devastation that was dealt upon the land. Strip
mining was taking its toll on the natural beauty and function of
the land, so Highlander worked diligently to fight this rape of
the land, its resources and its people. There were workshops offered,
teaching local activist to research and protest the devastation
in their own areas. In the 1980s Highlander began to connect to
organizers and activist beyond the borders of the United States
to assist in educational opportunities for others.
At the school’s 50th anniversary in 1982,
hundreds of former students returned to the school to honor the
man whose vision made it all possible. The event was covered in
a major documentary called You Gotta Move.
In 1982, both Myles Horton and Highlander were nominated
for a Nobel Peace Prize for its historic role in providing education
on behalf of human rights in the region. Time magazine called Highlander “one of the South’s most influential institutions of
social change in 1990. That was the same year there were two books
released by Myles Horton including The Long Haul: an Autobiography
and We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and
Social Change. However, Horton did not get to see his books in print
for he died on January 19, 1990. That same year The Long Haul won
the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
In 84 years Myles Horton along with his wife Zilphia
Mae Johnson Horton (who died in 1955) dedicated a life of service
to others. This dedication did not come without struggles or attacks,
but Myles Horton always keep his eye of the goal. In The Long Haul,
Myles Horton made this statement about the vision and idea of Highlander.
“To get something like this going in the first
place you have to have a goal. That goal shouldn't be one that inhibits
the people you're working with, but it should be beyond the goal
you expect them to strive for. If your goal isn't way out there
somewhere and isn't challenging and daring enough, then it is going
to get in your way and it will also stand in the way of other people.
Since my goal happened to be a goal of having a revolutionary change
in this country and all over the world, its unlikely to get in the
way in the near future.”
Myles Horton shaped the past and his vision is still
shaping the present and future. Today the Highlander Research and
Education Center continues the dream and work of a great man. He
was described himself as a “radical hillbilly” but this
tongue in cheek characterization in no way does justice to a man
whose work and vision set the standard for generations to follow.