MLK + Highlander Folk School =Social Change by design

18 Jan

courtesy of ryanhageman-flickr

On this day, we think about the birth and life (and untimely death) of Martin Luther King Jr.  Although there are tons of reminders of  Dr. King’s commitment to public service, that is rarely what I think about on his birthday.

I think about his activism and about how I have chosen to practice my own.  I am reminded that my activism (leadership development training for social change agents) is my way of saying  “Hey world, I just sent a few more people out into the world with more tools to make change, so there! ”

Two years ago, I learned about the Highlander Folk School and its important role during the civil rights movement.  Reading “ Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander”,   I  learned that the  Highlander School (a place of learning for social change)  taught leadership skills to the greatest symbols of the civil rights movement : Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and countless others whose activism led to historical social change .

What it ought to be, rather than what it is –Highlander School Motto

According to its website, the Highlander School was created in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West in Grundy County, Tennessee. The Highlander School’s original mission, which has since been adapted and expanded, was to educate “rural and industrial leaders for a new social order.”

The Highlander Folk School was revolutionary in its approach to social activism.   They believed in ” teaching people where they are”.  The workshops at the school were a combination of aspirational social change and teaching people to address the everday issues.    The school was comprised of  citizen leaders and  social activists  who realized that justice for all meant working on issues of race and poverty.

Gaining the strength to persevere in my work –Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks at a school desegregation training at the Highlander School

Rosa Parks’ choice not to move on the Montgomery Bus–was it because she was tired or was it something else?  Yes, she was tired.  But she was also taking a deliberate social action, one that she had planned during a workshop at the Highlander School.

King and Rosa Parks had earlier, separately, attended interracial workshops at Highlander Adult Education Center, Monteagle, Grundy County, Tennessee. Rosa Parks later said that attending Horton’s Highlander enabled her to stand fast in Montgomery. – The Making of a Prophet-Crossville Chronicle

After the Montgomery bus boycotts  began, Ms. Parks returned to Highlander  and reflected :

At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of differing races and background meetings together for workshops and living together in peace and harmony. I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom…” Unearthing the Seeds of Fire, The Idea of Highlander

Recruiting and training at the Highlander -SNCC and the SCLC

Highlander was the key place for civil rights activists to meet during the Civil Rights movement. Both the  Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used Highlander as a place to meet and plan for voter registrations and non violent demonstrations.

Another role of the Highlander School was “to multiply leadership for  radical social change.”   Myles Horton worked with the organizers of SNCC to do just that.   Both SNCC and SCLC held meetings at the Highlander School and asked Myles Horton to help them shape approaches for how to get more citizens involved.   When John Lewis, an early leader of SNCC,  asked Myles Horton to explain how to get more leaders on board of the civil rights movement, Mr. Horton responded:

We have found that if you decide what you want to do, decide what your program is and then let anybody who will, hope you accomplish what you want to do. We don’t make judgements on what other people might think. Good people want to be where the action is.”

I learned a piece of my history and I intend to repeat it.

In this space, I can only give a snippet of the amazing role of the Highlander School in social activism.  It deserves a more prominent place in history.   I know it is a place that has found its way into my mind .  I think Dr. King summarizes the work of the Highlander School the best:

“I have long admired the noble purpose and creative work of this institution, For twenty five years ( 1957 was the year of the speech), you have stood with dauntless courage and fearless determination.  You have given the South some of its most responsible leaders in this great period of transition. “A  Look to the Future delivered by MLK at the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Folk School

When you think about Martin Luther King Jr., think about activism and think about the Highlander School.  A true place of learning for leaders of one of the most important periods of social change.

Martin Luther King speaking at the Highlander School, 1957

Happy MLK day!



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