We Shall Still Overcome
Highlander Folk School Celebrates 75th Anniversary
New America Media, News Feature, Jeff Biggers Posted: Sep 01, 2007
On a hot summer evening in 1959, plainclothes police officers stormed the main room of the Highlander Folk School – an interracial adult education center housed in the eastern Tennessee mountain town of Monteagle – where 40 or so students were viewing a film and swigging on punch. Within the hour, Highlander associates were arrested for possession of liquor – a thinly veiled excuse to try and shut down the school for its radical ways.
While the police ransacked the school, the students began to sing an old labor and gospel song they had learned earlier that day from the staff's young music teacher Guy Carawan:
We are not afraid, we are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome someday.
Launched in 1932 in an area mired by deforestation, closed mines, subsistence farming and widespread impoverishment, the Highlander Center is celebrating its 75th anniversary this weekend as an extraordinary American institution that recognized the ability of mountaineers and Southerners to determine their own fate in volatile times. While it would have a major impact on the labor, farmer and Appalachian revival movements, Highlander’s role in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement deserves to be excavated from the rubble of our increasingly sanitized history lessons.
By 1953, desegregation efforts by Highlander-trained people, in fact, were already underway in eastern Tennessee communities and towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. Highlander drew up the first curriculum in the South to prepare teachers and community members for the transition to integration, and launched a series of workshops.
Rosa Parks, an activist with the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama, traveled to Highlander in the summer of 1955. The school’s interracial residential experience astounded Parks. She took part in the cooking, dining, dancing and singing among white and black students. In a later interview with radio commentator Studs Terkel, Parks recalled how the Highlander experience had been a first in her life, “where we all were treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with the artificial boundaries of racial segregation.”
Parks found the Highlander director, Myles Horton, to be the "first white man" she could trust. Speaking at a gathering 35 years after their meeting, she recalled Horton's ability to "strip the white segregationists of their hardcore attitudes and how he could confuse them, and I found myself laughing when I hadn’t been able to laugh in a long time."
On December 1, 1955, four months after the workshop, Rosa Parks set off the Civil Rights Movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white passenger.
As the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary celebrations at Highlander in 1957, Martin Luther King praised the school’s "dauntless courage and fearless determination" in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. He also heard for the first time a song that “really sticks with you.” It was called, “We Will Overcome.”
Brought to Highlander in 1946, by a group of black students from the Food, Tobacco and
Agricultural Workers Union in South Carolina, Highlander teachers recorded a rough version of the old gospel, and then recast a version with the rhythmic and harmonic structures of an Appalachian mountain ballad.
The song quickly became a school institution, passed on to thousands of students. Folksinger Pete Seeger learned it at Highlander later that same year and immediately began spreading his version around the country. Changing the rhythm slightly, Seeger’s musical ears preferred “We Shall” instead of “We Will,” in the chorus. Labor unions took up the song immediately. When a young folk singer in California, Guy Carawan, learned it from another folk singer in the early 1950s, he had no idea of his eventual role as a modern-day pied piper in spreading the song to Civil Rights workers at Highlander.
At a huge sit-in in Nashville in the spring of 1960, the song received its first national media spotlight when Carawan and the students were filmed singing on evening television news. “We Shall Overcome” resounded into the living rooms of America for the first, but not last, time.
Beleaguered by the segregationist forces across the South, the Highlander Folk School buildings were shuttered on a cold winter day in December of 1961, after various appeals on the liquor raid had been denied or lost. The school's property, the 5,000-volume library, furniture, bed sheets, farm equipment—everything on the 174-acre grounds—were auctioned to a gaggle of local segregationists anxious to buy goods on the cheap.
Horton and his associates did not attend the auction. They were too busy. They had already drawn up a charter for a new school, the Highlander Research and Education Center, to be temporarily based in Knoxville, Tennessee. A weary but amused Horton had dismissed the trial and school closing as a circus. “A school is an idea,” he declared. “And you can't padlock an idea.”
Horton may have lost his first school, and his personal belongings and property, but he had not lost his sense of humor or spirit. He continued to travel the country and the world as a legendary activist and educator until his death in 1991. Highlander continues today on a Cumberland Mountain farm outside of Knoxville, still in the forefront of social justice movements.
Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America (Shoemaker and Hoard), among other books.
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