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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / Retired college professor Dr. Lillian Johnson, center, donated the land for Highlander Folk School and its campus. Here she speaks with some of the attendees of the school outside the library building. the photo is contained in the collection at the Grundy County Historical Society's Heritage Center in nearby Tracy City.

Tennessean Myles Horton conceived the idea of building a folk school after visiting Denmark in 1931 and seeing the schools in action. A year later Horton, Georgian Don West and Floridian Jim Dombrowski founded the Highlander Folk School on a 200-acre farm donated by women's suffragist Lillian Johnson. Located outside Monteagle, Tenn., in one of the poorer counties of Tennessee, this "settlement house in a rural setting" became one of the the most controversial educational institutions of its time.

Starting with social evenings at the "big house," Highlander created two- to eight-week classes helping woodcutters, coal miners, government relief workers, textile workers and farmers to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions. The school became an outpost on the frontier of the Southern labor movement.

Conservatives in the local community criticized Highlander's support for labor unions, and unions themselves threatened reprisals in 1934 when Blacks began attending its workshops. Evangelist Billy Sunday joined the fray in 1935, when he preached in Chattanooga on the subject of "reds and labor organizers" and referred to a "communist organization out there on the mountain ." Author H. Glyn Thomas in "The Highlander Folk School" pointed out that fuel was added to the fire when the Chattanooga News and the Nashville Tennessean launched attacks on the school, whose library contained copies of the Daily Worker, plus other labor and socialist papers.

As the taint of communism reduced much-needed contributions to a mere trickle, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter starred at a major fundraiser in December 1940 in Washington, D.C., after which support from Cordell Hull, Harold Ickes, Hugo Black and Eleanor Roosevelt helped stabilize Highlander. Adolph Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941 made it more acceptable to espouse a left-of-center ideology.

Highlander turned in the 1950s to promoting civil rights, desegregation and voter rights, especially in helping Southern Blacks register to vote. Civil rights leader Rosa Parks attended a two-week interracial conference in 1955. Six months later, her refusal to give up a seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus led to a boycott that gave shape to the modern civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. attended Highlander in 1957. (A widely distributed photo of him noted his attendance at a "communist training school.") Andrew Young, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael were other civil rights leaders who came over the years. Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1958.

The musician Guy Carawan first visited Highlander in 1953 at the suggestion of folk singer Pete Seeger and taught activists an old gospel song adapted with a new rhythm and cord structure. King first heard "We Shall Overcome" when Seeger played it at the school in 1957 and said, "There's something about that song that haunts you." It became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Activities at Highlander stirred FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send agents to report on King, Horton and other leaders. Political pressure by segregationists in 1961 led the state of Tennessee to close the school on charges of violating its tax-exempt status and selling liquor for profit without a license. Nashville attorney George Barrett pointed out that one raid turned up "a washtub full of ice, soft drinks and beer, plus a jar of coins." Barrett fought back with two unsuccessful lawsuit appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Highlander's charter was revoked and its property confiscated.

In 1961, Myles Horton moved the school to Knoxville, where it remained until 1974, when it moved to New Market, outside Morristown, Tenn. In the 1960s and 1970s, Highlander shifted emphasis to worker health and safety in the Appalachian coal fields. The school branched into addressing global environmental issues in the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years, the school, a "catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South," has focused on issues related to immigrants, youth, African-Americans, poor whites and LGBTs.

Horton, often called the father of the civil rights movement, was buried in 1990 in a cemetery adjacent to the school's original Monteagle site. To learn more about the center itself in New Market, visit Highlandercenter.org

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. Frank "Mickey" Robbins is a Chattanooga Area Historical Association board member. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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