In the midst of a long car trip, we stopped to visit the Highlander Research and Education Center near New Market, Tennessee. It was just a short visit, since we had many miles to go. Also, the workshop and conference areas were in use, so our options were limited.
In spite of all that, I was very happy that we could make the time to see it. I’d known about the Highlander Folk School for many years, through Myles Horton’s books and other writing. But I also knew that the state of Tennessee had revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated the school’s land and property.(in 1961) and that Horton had died in 1990. I hadn’t kept up with all the good work that the Center continued to do.
After two major moves, the Highlander Center came to its present site in 1971. It sits atop Bay’s Mountain in the Tennessee River Valley, looking across to the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Workshop Center is home to organizing and leadership development, workshops on civil rights, immigrant communities, and economic justice. Projects have ranged from connecting communities around the world affected by industrial chemical pollution to LGBTQ rights.
In the early years (1930s-40s) the focus was on building a unified Labor movement. Later (1950s-60s) Highlander helped incubate the SNCC and Mississippi Freedom Summer. Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, and Martin Luther King were among the participants.
Moving into the1970s-90s there was an increasing focus on land issues, environment, and global economics. This meant more international connections and collaborations. In the present century there has been even more emphasis on developing tools and connecting people and organizations. Highlander has also expanded work with immigrant communities.
The Resource Center is home to archives, book shop, and library. Within a small wooden building is a rich history of progressive movements over eight decades in Appalachia, the US, and worldwide.
The activities of the Highlander Center are diverse. But they’re well symbolized through the metaphor of a conversation with neighbors, all sitting in rocking chairs, arranged in a circle.
Those chairs and that circle are real. The open dialogue across different backgrounds and experiences that they imply is the first step in enacting positive change.
We stayed that night in Fall Creek Falls State Park, not too far to the west of the Center. The Park is named for the highest plunge waterfall east of the Mississippi. The nearby Piney Creek Falls are even more beautiful.