Highlander and Horton

by Wade Rathke
May 8, 2021

New Orleans    It was fun talking to Stephen Preskill about his new book, Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision for Social Justice, on Wade’s World. The pleasure was as much about Preskill’s discussion of the book and his research, as it was bringing back memories of the people and places where we have intersected with Highlander and others mentioned in the book.

Of course, I’ve been to Highlander a number of times. ACORN had meetings there for a number of years until we were virtually snowed in once and realized we needed to go another direction in that season. I also had visited with other groups at different times, from my first visit while on the board of the Youth Project in the 1970s until the University of Memphis planners and neighborhood residents most recently. My muscle memories include running when I used to be a daily jogger and would set out, sometimes with a buddy, and make it down to the main road and then coming back try my best to make it all the way to the top of the last hill to the main building. We talked about how long they had held out against private rooms and insisted on bunk beds. Sitting in a circle at the meetings on rocking chairs was standard operating procedure virtually from 1932 when Horton and others founded the Center until today as Highlander approaches its 100th anniversary. In my memory, on an earlier visit I met Horton for a minute, I think in their dining area, but maybe it was elsewhere.

Preskill talked for a bit about Jim Dombroski, who was an early Highlander staff who brought organization to the operation. I had prompted him to go down that path by sharing a memory from 1975 or 76, when we were opening the ACORN’s early organizing in New Orleans, and I was invited to a meeting at his place on Barracks in the French Quarter about something so I can also introduce ACORN and our plans in the city. Back then I noted how many people in his history overlapped with H. L. Mitchell and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, that we also knew so well.

Highlander was of course established by Horton and his colleagues with an emphasis on popular education, deeply rooted in local experience and culture as a folk school influenced by experiences in Denmark and later Pablo Freire’s work. We talked about listening, something that Preskill noted was essential in both the ACORN and Highlander methodology. We discussed the Center’s history with important intersections in the early CIO-driven labor movement and the civil rights movement and connections with Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, and how that history continues to overshadow the present.

I had met Preskill at the Wisconsin State Historical Society when an ACORN team was there at the same time as he was researching this book, since both Highlander and ACORN have their archives in their Social Change Collection. He’d done his homework, so the book is realistic. He notes the struggle at Highlander to deal with race. We discussed Horton’s project to expand the Highlander model internationally, and his inability to do so. I mentioned Mike Clark, one of the directors who followed Horton and his move to Montana and the lack of portability domestically as well. We talked about John Gaventa’s pathbreaking research on land ownership in Appalachia, and he noted that it didn’t create the change it had hoped to inspire. He had written about their difficulty in winning more than spotty success in community development. I had met Ash Lee Henderson, one of the current co-directors, in Memphis when she was trying to organize a faculty union at the university, so wasn’t surprised to hear that currently they emphasized work with Black Lives Matter, just as more recently they had focused on the immigrant rights movement.

There are contradictions at the heart of Highlander. It’s an iconic and almost sacred space in the progressive and social change history of the last one-hundred years. It lives in some philanthropic favor with a multi-million budget according to its latest financial report shared to me as part of its mailing list. Preskill speaks of Horton’s vision for social justice and that vision has been shared by successive directors, including Jim Sessions, who is a longtime comrade and friend and sits on the board of one of our c3’s, but there’s a tension at Highlander between what it is, and what many of its leaders want it to be.

Highlander doesn’t make change, but serves as an incubator and a space where change can be planned and debated in isolation and without distraction. In fact, the other reason we stopped meeting there was the inability to get cell connections and the lack of internet at the time. In that role, it is special and unparalleled. Horton’s dream of education has lost favor and is now embedded more in the organizing process itself, as Cesar Chavez noted, leadership development “is learned on the picket line.” The Highlander place and space is its own legacy and assures its longevity. We should honor that still, and always, without complaint that it isn’t more.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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