The history of the Highlander Folk School reflects the course of organized labor and Civil Rights movements in the South, as well as the struggles of southern activists between the 1930s and early 1960s. Established near Monteagle in 1932 by the Tennessee-born Myles Horton and a young Georgian named Don West, Highlander's programs were based upon the conviction that education could be used to help ordinary people build upon the knowledge they had gained from experience and work collectively toward a more democratic and humane society. This approach made the adult education center a source of inspiration and the most controversial school in modern Tennessee history.
Residential workshops at its two-hundred-acre campus played a central role in Highlander's efforts to achieve its overall goals. Workshops lasted from two days to eight weeks and attracted fifteen to forty organizational leaders of various cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds. They focused on specific, concrete subjects in order to address particular community problems.
The process of analyzing and responding to the problems was as important as the proposed solutions. The school gave no grades, credits, examinations, or degrees; the needs of the students largely determined the curriculum of the sessions. Faculty members refrained from imposing a preconceived set of ideas. Instead, they used visiting speakers, movies, audio recordings, drama, and music to identify common issues, offer broader perspectives, and introduce promising strategies. Workshop participants evaluated their findings, assessed their new understanding of their concerns, and made plans to initiate or sustain activities when they returned to their communities.
Indeed, the Highlander faculty regarded the workshops as only part of a learning process that began before students arrived at the school and continued well after they left. Once labor education, literacy training, leadership development, or voter education classes had been firmly developed, Highlander transferred responsibility for the programs to organizations with larger resources, thereby remaining both a resource and catalyst for future action.
During its early years Highlander achieved modest success in organizing and educating mine, mill, timber, and unemployed workers in the surrounding area. It also operated several community programs for Grundy County residents. The school's reputation grew as faculty members became directly involved in the southern organizing drives mounted by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the late 1930s. For most of the next decade, they helped unionize textile workers in Tennessee and the Carolinas, directed large-scale labor education programs in eleven southern states, and developed a residential program that promoted a broad-based, racially integrated, and politically active labor movement. But post-World War II differences over the priorities of organized labor broke up the Highlander-CIO relationship and prompted the staff to attempt a revival of the southern wing of the Farmers' Union and the formation of a regional farmer-labor coalition.
Frustrated by the continued reluctance of existing organizations to overcome racial barriers to change, Highlander's teachers began holding workshops on public school desegregation in 1953, nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court's momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the South. Residential workshops gradually encompassed the challenges of community-wide integration. The sessions attracted hundreds of black and white activists including, shortly before the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Highlander-sponsored Citizenship Schools, first held in 1957 on the South Carolina Sea Islands, taught thousands of blacks in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama the literacy skills they needed to secure the right to vote. In the early 1960s, as sit-in protests erupted in Nashville and across the South, college students gathered at the folk school to explore the possible directions and goals for a new era of black protest; they also learned “freedom songs” adapted by Highlander musicians, including “We Shall Overcome.” Through these programs Highlander became the educational center of the early Civil Rights movement.
The folk school's involvement in the southern labor and Civil Rights movements earned it both accolades and enmity. Even as Eleanor Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr, educators, ministers, union leaders, philanthropists, and reform groups voiced their support, staff members endured a barrage of threats and denunciations from industrialists, politicians, self-styled patriotic groups, and journalists for unfriendly newspapers. As Highlander became more prominent in the struggle for racial justice, outraged southern white segregationists launched a sustained assault against what they described as a “Communist training school.” Although faculty members defended the school's ideology and pedagogy eloquently and often persuasively in the face of such attacks, their understandable, but loose institutional practices made them vulnerable in the 1950s. Following a headline-grabbing investigation by state legislators, a police raid, and two dramatic trials, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated its property in 1962.
This did not mean the end of Highlander. Before the final court decision on the folk school's fate, Highlander officers secured a charter for a new institution to be named the Highlander Research and Education Center. First based in Knoxville, and since 1972 near New Market, the center continues to pursue, in a new context, the folk school's original purpose, as given in its mission statement: to educate “rural and industrial leaders for a new social order” while enriching “the indigenous cultural values of the mountains.”