Civil Rights

Disrupters & Interlopers: Myles Horton

In the 1960s, photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in the front row of a small audience were circulated in Southern newspapers, and it was purported that the images showed him attending a “communist training school.” That school was the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, and in the pictures, on the center of the front row was its founder and director Myles Horton.

Horton was born in 1905 in Tennessee, and after attending college then working as a traveling Sunday school teacher, he went to Europe where he learned about Danish folk schools. When he came back to America, he founded the school that became Highlander Folk School in 1932, during the thickest part of the Depression. His school was pro-worker, pro-common man, and racially integrated, which earned him and the institution more a little bit of flack. Among the famous Americans associated with the school are Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pete Seeger.

According to Biography. com:

Horton believed in the importance of a pluralistic, free-thinking society that deviated from systems of indoctrination often put forth by traditional education. “People are creative,” Horton said at age 75 in a television interview on Bill Moyers’ Journal. “You’ve got to allow them to do a lot of things that don’t fit any kind of system.”

Though Myles Horton passed away in 1990, The Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee continues his mission, which includes an emphasis on the idea of “grassroots leadership,” which means bringing common people into active roles they normally might not take. Horton wrote, in the chapter “Workshops” in The Long Haul:

The reason we chose to work on grassroots leadership was that when you’re trying to break out of the conventional way of doing things, that is, a top-down authoritarian way, you have more chance of influencing someone who hasn’t been molded into the hierarchical system, and already been socialized. People who are just beginning to understand themselves as leaders are also more open. Probably even more important, they can be held responsible by the membership, not just by the top officials of the organizations that sent them to Highlander. Whatever strength and influence they have will be based on their way of serving the people who have accepted some of their leadership. They are also accessible to their people on an everyday level, whereas with institutional leadership, you have to make an appointment.

Two books – Frank Adams’ book Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander, co-written with Horton, and The Long Haul: An Autobiography by Horton himself – describe his life, work, and thinking in personal terms. A 1985 documentary about Horton and Highlander titled You Got to Move is also available.

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