The Extraordinary Myles Horton

Interview by Ellen Gould and Murray Dobbin

Myles Horton is the founder of the Highlander Folk School, a centre for leadership training in Tennessee. The Highlander, founded fifty–five years ago, trains organizers for unions, civil rights organizations and local citizens’ groups. In this article, Ellen Gould and Murray Dobbin talk to Horton to find out what his experience has taught him about organizing for social change.

Question: What in your six decades of experience have you found motivates people to get involved in social change?

Myles Horton: Everyone I’ve worked with has had in common a recognized need to solve a problem in a situation where they were trying to do something that they couldn’t do. They have had a goal but were frustrated in achieving it.
If they get some help, that allows them to proceed, to understand and analyze their experience. But it’s still their own experience that is the motivating factor and not the help they receive.
If the goal isn’t challenging enough that people are willing to struggle to achieve it, then there’s no basis for motivation.
Personal motivation is less long–range and sustaining than group motivation, despite the fact that most of our education focuses on the individual.

Question: Do you think the goal and the motivation always have to be based on an economic problem?

M.H.: Oh, no, no. I think that it is a terrible mistake to assume that people’s self–interest and group interests are only economic. When it comes down to it, if you don’t have enough to eat to live, then you have a problem. Ultimately there is an economic base. But most problems are not that closely associated with economics. People have real values.
I was organizing textile workers back in the thirties in South Carolina. They were some of the lowest paid workers in the country. I was talking to them about their families, about the future of their children, about their responsibilities as citizens.
Some of the other organizers said, “Talk to them about economics, talk to them about wages. That’s all they’re interested in.” But I found that that wasn’t true at all. I found that people have a wide range of interests and too often organizers limit the people they are working with to their own value system.
I think workers are very often way ahead of organizers in terms of the way they think about life.

Question: What kinds of people do you think are important to work with?

M.H.: Everybody’s worth working with, in the sense that all human beings have worth. But if you are going to carry on an educational program, you can’t do mass education. You have to be selective.
Our approach is to select grass–roots or emerging leaders, people who are very close to the rank and file in a union or a community. They may not be the official leaders but they have the potential of serving the interests of the people.

Question: When you’re looking at potential leadership in groups, what kinds of groups are you looking at?

M.H.: We look for groups that have the potential for social change. Now how do you tell if a group has this potential? If it’s a very limited reform they’re seeing that once it’s achieved, people are no longer interested the group doesn’t have much potential for developing leadership or social change.
But if it’s a tough problem, requiring an element of structural change and some time to solve, then people have to be dedicated over the long run and you have a beginning. Now if it’s one that has the potential of spreading out, solving one problem and then moving on to others, so the goal is beyond that immediate step, then that’s the group you work with.
It’s not the worst situations, not where people have suffered most. That’s not the criterion. That’s a humanitarian, philanthropic problem. We’re interested in radical social change.

Question: How have you helped people to build analyses of their situations?

M.H.: First you start out with their problem, and you help people analyze around that problem. If they don’t learn from their own experience they aren’t going to learn from yours. Anybody who thinks you can come in from the top with theories and pass it on to people doesn’t understand how people learn. In analyzing their own experience, people enlarge it so the analysis becomes part of their experience, not foreign to it.
People need to realize that they are part of the bigger world and at the same time they have to work where they are.
You start with where people are first and then it reaches out from there. The goal doesn’t have to be limited at all but the steps have to be in conformity with the situation and the capacities and the development of the people.

Question: How do you see people developing a long term vision and not getting fixated on the immediate problem?

M.H.: Too many organizers think that groups can’t deal with anything other than a tiny, easy problem and so they take adults, poor people who have struggled and survived for years, and treat them like little children, as though they can’t deal with tough problems or take on challenges.
If people have the information, and it’s an outgrowth of their experience, then there’s no limit on what people can think about. Sometimes in asking questions and helping people analyze their experience you’ll be surprised at the startling statements that come out of people about what their interests are.
Don’t whittle them down to your size but try to build up your own expectations to equal theirs. Try to help them understand that they have within themselves experience if they’ll only learn how to analyze and use it in starting out on the road to achieving their goals. You have to be careful not to get beyond their experience, but not to assume that their experience is not expandable.

Question: In looking back over decades of organizing work, can you generalize about what kinds of activities have generated change?

M.H.: The one thing I’ve learned about that is that people shouldn’t be encouraged to do things that they don’t have the means or the troops for just because they sound good.
Take lobbying. In lobbying, you’re dealing with multinational corporations and all kinds of special interests that have their lobbies. Just because lobbying is a good thing doesn’t mean you can compete with other lobbyists. They’ve got money and all you got is people. So you’ve got to stop and think about what you do have rather than what you don’t have.
So that means that you need to use some kind of creative mass action. Ideas that aren’t translated into action seldom have any kind of relevance in terms of change.
Action just can’t be conventional action where you do the things that have been done over and over. You have to be creative about the action.
It seems to me, looking at the history during my lifetime, that the only thing you can say with assurance has made a difference has been civil disobedience.
In the early days of the labour movement, we had to defy all the laws because there were laws against organizing and meetings and picket lines. In the civil rights movement, if we hadn’t defied the law we would never have gotten anywhere. In the mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, where people said,“No, we’re not going to be stopped. We’re going to go to jail,” they were the things that got results.

Reprinted from Briarpatch’s February 1988 issue. Briarpatch is published ten times a year. A one year subscription costs $19.00. Write: Briarpatch, 2138 McIntyre Street, Regina, SK S4P 2R7.

Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 12, Number 1, Fall 1988.



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