August 28, 2018

Labor Day 2018: Remembering the “Radical Hillbilly”

On Monday September 03, 2018, the country will once again observe Labor Day. For most this means an end of summer bash before fall sets in. Families will gather at the lake, cookout and catch those opening weekend college football games. However, those of us in labor know the day means much more than that.

Since 1894 the first Monday in September has been recognized as Labor Day. Those of us in the labor movement understand that this day is more than a picnic or get together, but a day set aside to recognize the men and women who have fought for America’s workers and to pay homage to the workers themselves. It has been America’s workers who have built the roads, the railroads, the tanks and planes during war times and built an economy that has made America a nation that leads. Not the CEOs, the bankers, the land barons or the politicians- but the men and women who turn the wheels every day.

Throughout history there have been those who stepped forward to champion the causes of America’s workers. One such person was Tennessee’s own Myles Horton. Myles Horton was born in Savannah, Tennessee in 1905 in a working poor family, and learned the struggle first hand of America’s workers. When he was nineteen ne enrolled in Cumberland University here in Lebanon, Tennessee and began work on his college degree. While studying, Myles took a job teaching Bible classes to the nearby mountain people from the Presbyterian Church. It was during these lessons that Horton witnessed the poverty these hard working people lived in. He vowed that once he finished is education he would strive to make a difference in the lives of the mountain people.

Following his graduation from Cumberland University and the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Myles Horton returned to the mountains of Tennessee to open the Highlander Folk School with the mission of capturing the life of the hard working people from that area. The school concentrated on teaching and preserving the mountain crafts and documenting the tales and life of the mountain people.

In 1932 about 100 miles from the Highlander Folk School, the workers at the Wilder Mine went on strike. Wilder forced the workers out on strike by demanding 20% wage cuts and the union be decertified. The strikers lived in the company town and were forced out in the middle of winter with no food or shelter. Myles Horton heard of the strike and went to Wilder to view what was happening. The Red Cross had collected food and clothing for the striking workers and sent it to Wilder. However, the Red Cross at Wilder was ran by the wife of the mine superintendent and the food and clothing that had been collected for the strikers was distributed to the scabs that had been brought in to replace the strikers. Myles Horton was appalled but what he saw and had the students at the Highlander Folk School collect goods for the families of the strikers and distributed them. Highlander students wrote letters to papers around the state telling what was happening. Soon donations were pouring in from all over.

Once the strike ended Horton returned to the Highlander Folk School with a new mission to organize workers to stand together to make a better life for working class families. The classes changed from crafts to social activism, civil rights and labor studies. 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.

In 1944, the leadership of the UAW attended classes at the Highlander Folk School and soon more and more UAW members took classes there. Horton continued to organize farm workers and taught the organizing to the leadership of many national unions including the UAW.

In 1959 the Highlander Folk School was shut down by the State of Tennessee for holding integrated classes. The property was seized and the buildings burned to the ground. Undeterred, Myles Horton opened the Highlander Center near Knoxville, and continued educating and assisting workers. 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. Taking his nomination in stride, Horton said he was just a “radical hillbilly.” The name stuck and he referred to himself that way the rest of his life. Myles Horton could have done a lot of different things with his school but he decided to help workers with it. He believed in building a better world. For his efforts he was slandered, had his property seized and shunned by many of the communities around him. But, he persevered- he fought the good fight.

To learn more about Myles Horton, check out the Activist Hall of Fame on the UAW Region 8 website. This Labor Day, may we never forget the struggles of those who came before us. We in labor are standing on the shoulders of giants, who made a difference. Our generation owes a debt to the future working class to preserve these gains and build on them. This Labor Day let’s dedicate ourselves anew to honor the memory of the “radical hillbilly” and all the other heroes of labor by continuing their work.

On behalf of myself, Assistant Director Tim Smith and the entire Region 8 staff, here’s wishing a great Labor Day to you and your families.

In Solidarity,

Mitchell Smith
UAW Region 8 Director








Contact Region 8
Webmaster John Davis

All information contained with the Region 8 Web Site is copyrighted© by UAW Region 8.
It cannot be reused or printed without written consent from UAW Region 8.