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Highlander Research and Education Center

Myles Horton, Highlander Folk School and the Wilder Coal Strike of 1932

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Myles Horton: The Radical Hillbilly

By UAW Region 8 Webmaster John Davis

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. 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.

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. 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 travled to Demark to view them first hand.


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.

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. 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 theseselves 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.

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.

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. Union official Barbey Graham was murdered by two gun men 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.

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.

Highlander Folk School and Civil Rights

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.

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.

Rosa Parks

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 school down.

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 it.”

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.

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.

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.





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