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Civil Rights Movement Origins at Highlander Educational Sessions

When Rosa Parks was asked by the eminent talk show host, Studs Terkel, what the Highlander Center had to do with the fact that she chose not to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on that fateful day in early December 1955, she answered quite simply, “everything.” As a result of its educational efforts on behalf of integration, the state of Tennessee closed Highlander in 1960 on bogus charges and auctioned off all of its property, only to have it reopen shortly thereafter under a new name and charter.

This form of adult education is now widely known as “Popular Education.” The core of its meaning and definition are clear, while the boundaries are intentionally permeable. Popular Education is, at root, the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies, within a life sustaining global environment. Its priority is the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised people of the world—ordinary people.

I often encounter educators and others who have never heard of popular education, nor of its principal exemplars, like the Highlander Center, with the spoken or unspoken implication that therefore, it must not have much impact or significance. Myles Horton (co-founder of the Highlander Center in 1934) once told me, “you can accomplish a lot of good in the world if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.” Certainly, a very un-American and un-academic point of view. However, it is the epitome of a successful popular education effort for the people to say, “we have done it ourselves”—and they are, paradoxical as it might seem, quite right.

For example, many may have heard mention of the fact that Rosa Parks attended training sessions at Highlander prior to sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but too few realize the depth of Highlander Center’s contributions. It was at Highlander that the critical literacy and leadership training program—the citizenship school program—was conceived and developed. The program, along with its co-founder Septima Clark, were transferred to Martin Luther King’s organization to become Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s principal education program. Not only did it teach tens of thousands of Southern Blacks to read and write, so they could register to vote; it also developed the leadership that formed the organizational nucleus for the movement in countless towns and cities throughout the South.1

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at Highlander from a long- running annual integrated workshop for college students. Highlander continues to this day to play a seminal role in people’s struggles for economic and social justice throughout the South, the nation, North America, and worldwide.
A fine nutshell description is Myles Horton’s, “the greatest education comes from action, the greatest action is the struggle for justice.”2

John Hurst is a professor in the Language and Literacy, Society and Culture Program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Excerpt from an article first published in Educator, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley.

1.    Tjerandsen, Carl, Education for Citizenship: A Foundation’s Experience, Schwarzhaupt Foundation, 1980.
2.    From an interview on Bill Moyer’s Journal, “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly,” PBS, June 1981.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits