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The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly known as the Highlander Folk School, is a liberal leadership training school and cultural center located in New Market, Tennessee. Founded in 1932 by activist Myles Horton, educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Dombrowski, it was originally located in the town of Monteagle, in Grundy County, Tennessee. It was featured in the 1985 documentary film You Got to Move.
Highlander has provided training and education for the labor movement in Appalachia and throughout the Southern United States. During the 1950s, it played a critical role in the American Civil Rights Movement. It trained civil rights leader Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as providing training for many other movement activists including Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950s. The resulting backlash of the school's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement led to the school's closure by the state of Tennessee in 1961. It reorganized and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where it reopened, later becoming the Highlander Research and Education Center.
The Highlander Folk School was originally established in Grundy County, Tennessee. When Highlander was founded in 1932, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Workers in all parts of the country were met with major resistance by employers when they tried to organize labor unions, especially in the South. Against that backdrop, Horton, West and Dombrowski created the Highlander School "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains." Horton was influenced by observing rural adult education schools in Denmark started in the 19th century by Danish Lutheran Bishop Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the school's main focus was labor education and the training of labor organizers.
In the 1950s, Highlander turned its energies to the rising issues of civil rights and desegregation. In addition to Myles Horton and others, a key figure during this period was John Beauchamp Thompson, a minister and educator who became one of the principal fund-raisers and speakers for the school. Highlander worked with Esau Jenkins of Johns Island to develop a literacy program for blacks who were prevented from registering to vote by literacy requirements. The program was replicated throughout the South under the name Citizenship Schools. Later the program was adopted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" was adapted (from a gospel song) by Highlander music director, Zilphia Horton, wife of Myles Horton, from the singing of striking tobacco factory workers in South Carolina in 1946, and shortly afterward was published by folksinger Pete Seeger in the People's Songs bulletin. It was revived at Highlander by Guy Carawan, who succeeded Zilphia Horton as Highlander's music director in 1959.
In reaction to the effective work done by the school, during the late 1950s Southern newspapers attacked Highlander for supposedly creating racial strife. In 1957, the Georgia Commission on Education published a pamphlet entitled, "Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School in Monteagle, Tennessee". Finally, in 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated its land and property. Later that year, the Highlander staff reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center and moved to Knoxville, where it stayed until 1971. Then it relocated to its current location in New Market, Tennessee.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Highlander began to focus on worker health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia. Its leaders played a role in the emergence of the region's environmental justice movement. It helped start the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training (SALT) program, and coordinated a survey of land ownership in Appalachia. In the 1980s and 1990s, Highlander broadened from that base into broader regional, national, and international environmentalism; struggles against the negative effects of globalization; grassroots leadership development in under-resourced communities; and beginning in the 1990s, an involvement in LGBT issues, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Current focuses of Highlander include issues of democratic participation and economic justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, and poor white people.
The directors of Highlander have been:
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