Why the Highlander Attack Matters

Apr 12, 2019
News of the March 29 arson attack on the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, shocked and angered progressives across the country. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the blaze destroyed Highlander’s main office building, along with valuable organizational records and historic documents that had not been archived at the University of Wisconsin and other repositories. Yet, for the many familiar with its storied history of movement-building, research, radical education, and cultural work, the devastation goes much deeper than property loss. It’s as if a sanctuary was violated.

And violated it was. Making crystal clear their terrorist intention, the attackers left their mark on the parking lot by spray-painting a symbol derived from the fascist Romanian Iron Guard during the 1930s that is commonly used by white supremacists. The same symbol was painted on one of the guns used in the recent murderous attack on two mosques in New Zealand, and scrawled alongside swastikas on the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus in November.

To find out more about the Highlander Center and how you can support the rebuilding effort, please visit their website: www.highlandercenter.org.

The attack on Highlander is the latest in a rising wave of racist terror targeting black, brown, and indigenous communities, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and gender non-conforming folks. For Highlander’s co-executive directors, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and the Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, the attack was disheartening, frustrating, and terrifying, but hardly surprising. “Because of our history,” they wrote in a recent press release, “we are not surprised that this space, one where marginalized people working across sectors, geographies, and identities, show up consistently, has been repeatedly targeted over our 87 years of existence.”

The leadership, staff, and many activists associated with Highlander’s ongoing social-justice work understand the attack as not merely a hate crime by misguided individuals but an act of war. Situated on about 200 acres of land just east of Knoxville, Tennessee, Highlander has long been on the front lines of a protracted war on workers, poor farmers, people of color, and other marginalized communities. In a region ravaged by the worst excesses of capitalist and racist exploitation—plant closures, environmental catastrophe from coal mining, dispossession, opioid addiction, state-sanctioned violence—Highlander is one of the few progressive safe spaces where movements connect, dream, and build for the local, national, and global fight back. 

Of course, fighting back is in the institution’s DNA. Myles Horton founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1932, amid an escalating class war in the region. A Tennessee native, Horton attended Union Theological Seminary in the late 1920s, where under the tutelage of the legendary social-gospel theologian Reinhold Niebuhr he envisioned creating a radical educational space to advance social justice and democracy in the South. A year at the University of Chicago brought him in contact with social scientists, reformers, and activists, including Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois, who encouraged his vision, and a year in Denmark studying “folk schools” taught him of the value of culture as a tool for education and collective problem solving.

While this is all true, it was Southern workers and their militant allies, especially Communists and Socialists, who came to define Highlander’s trajectory. When Highlander opened, sharecroppers in Alabama were fighting for their lives; miners, steel and textile workers prepared for a massive strike wave; and unemployed councils popped up in cities across the Southeast. Horton was joined by key figures in the resurgent Southern left—Don West, James Dombrowski, Howard Kester, Zilla Hawes, and others with various ties to the Socialist and Communist parties. Indeed, in 1934, Highlander became the site for a united-front agreement between Communists and Socialists to support Southern unionization on the basis of racial and gender equality and to resist fascism, lynching, anti-labor terror, and white supremacy. They critiqued racist and anti-worker New Deal policies—its minimum-wage codes, for example, excluded occupations such as domestic and agricultural work, allowed Southern industries to pay workers less, and left most black workers without any protections, while the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which mandated reductions in cultivation, led to the dispossession of many black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Highlander became the informal education center for the CIO’s campaign in the South, demanding a labor movement grounded in principles of racial justice and promoting a farmer-labor coalition.

Highlander had always pushed for what we broadly call civil rights, but by 1953 it turned its attention more directly to the black-freedom movement. Esau Jenkins of Johns Island, South Carolina, launched a literacy program specifically to help enfranchise African Americans by preparing them to deal with the registrar’s literacy requirements. It established Citizenship Education Schools under the direction of Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson. Clark, a legendary South Carolina educator and activist, developed literacy programs for disenfranchised black adults that anticipated the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil. Among Clark’s trainees was veteran NAACP organizer Rosa Parks, who attended Highlander prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. Indeed, during its 25th anniversary workshop in 1957, photographs of Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were emblazoned on billboards throughout the South identifying Highlander as a “Communist training school.” Never intimidated by the red-baiting, Highlander’s staff continued to provide training and strategic space for Southern organizers such as Ella Baker, Anne Braden, James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, and many other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The government did its best to shutter Highlander for good in 1961. Using anti-communism as its pretext, the Tennessee state legislature voted to revoke its charter and seize all land, buildings, and property owned by Highlander. Horton’s appeal to the US Supreme Court proved unsuccessful. Not to be deterred, the school reopened in a smaller house in Knoxville and secured a new charter as the Highlander Research and Education Center. Nor was the state deterred: Highlander continued to be a prime target of government surveillance and extralegal violence. In June of 1963, police in Blount County raided an interracial camp organized by Highlander to train activists in the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Twenty-nine people were arrested, and three days later the entire encampment was burned to the ground—most likely by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1966, the Klan organized a march on the center, and a few months later someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through its front window. Fortunately, no one was injured and the damage to the property was minimal.

During the center’s 10 years in Knoxville, it remained a hotbed of progressive action in spite of the constant threats and intimidation. In fact, Highlander expanded its operation to other parts of the country, playing an active role in the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City—the campaign’s occupation of Washington, DC. And during the early 1970s, the center established a short-lived outpost in New Mexico and worked to build coalitions between the Chicano movement, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Native American struggles for land and sovereignty, and working-class Appalachians fighting for land as a strategy to resist the coal industry and redistribute wealth.

In 1971, the center moved to its present location in New Market, Tennessee, where staff became more directly involved in local initiatives to fight poverty, environmental devastation from strip mining, and outside corporate control of land and resources. The Center also helped launch the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training program to train local leaders and support grassroots groups fighting pollution and toxic dumping. And as the global-justice movement emerged in opposition to free-trade policies, neoliberalism, the erosion of worker and environmental protections, and widening inequality, Highlander was there sponsoring workshops on economic human rights and globalization, and building connections with anti-globalization activists.

After the deadly 1984 gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, Highlander connected Bhopal survivors with people impacted by Union Carbide’s operations in the United States. The center’s “Stop the Pollution” initiative trained and linked over 800 grassroots activists, including factory workers, miners, teachers, and youth from Latinx, black, and indigenous communities to deepen their environmental justice work. And Highlander supported the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network to help local organizations fight factory closures, the impact of free-trade policies, and falling wages, and to bring attention to the devastating effect neoliberal trade policies have had on local communities.

Highlander continues to be a leader, facilitator and an incubator of justice work. It was at Highlander where the first media-justice gathering took place in 2002, launching a vital grassroots movement unabashedly led by people of color. Today, the center supports organizing to win immigration justice, youth organizing, progressive cultural work, solidarity economy, black and queer liberation, and so much more. Highlander Co–Executive Director Ash-Lee Woodward Henderson is the first black woman to serve in the role in the organization’s history. Serving alongside co-executive director Allyn Maxfield-Steele, the relatively new executive director team is moving the Center into the 21st century in a big way: Highlander has modeled independent communications by building its own internet tower. It has decreased its carbon footprint and amplified its social-media presence, and it is helping to build a more resilient, intersectional, and intergenerational movement, one that’s rooted in its vision as much as its legacy.

This is why the attack on Highlander matters to each and everyone of us who values justice and why together we must stand up to racist terror. As the center’s co-executive directors said in a recent press statement, “This is a time for building our power. Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times. Now is not the time to dismiss how scary things are, which makes it even more important to have concrete assessments of concrete conditions, and sophisticated strategies to build a new world.”