PS Orals Excerpt: Highlander legacies

In 1957, Horton and Clark invited Martin Luther King as a keynote speaker for Highlander’s 25th anniversary. Georgia’s segregationist governor Marvin Griffin sent infiltrators to take photos at the event. Soon, posters of King were displayed across the South with Horton and others in an act of “red-baiting”, being reproduced in newspapers with titles like “King at a Communist Training School”. In 1959, Tennessee state authorities raised and padlocked the school. Horton and others shifted the school to Knoxville (and later to New Market), Tennessee, and renamed it as Highlander Research and Education Center. King had become interested in the CEPs on the insistence of Septima Clark that:

"to acknowledge the force of Clark's argument that after demonstrations in community after community, there was no tangible result. No oppressive laws were taken off the books; no power was gained by blacks. Citizenship classes, on the other hand, did lead to voter registration; potentially, they could do so on a large scale”

Today, Highlander is renowned for the legacy of workers’ education and in aiding to produce leaders of the civil rights movements like Rosa Parks. Talking about Parks’ reflections about her time at one of the citizenship education programs, Horton reflects:

“She doesn't say a thing about integration. She says the reason Highlander meant something to her and emboldened her to act as she did was that at Highlander she found respect as a black person and found white people she could trust. So you speak not just by words and discussion but you speak by the way your programs are run. If you believe in something, then you have to practice it. People used to come to Highlander when there were very few places, if any, in the South where social equality was accepted. We shared it by doing it and not by talking about it. We didn't have to make a speech about it. We didn't even have to ask questions about it. We did it”107

“We shared it by doing it and not talking about it” is a defiant assertion made by Horton in 1990, towards the end of his life. By then, much would have changed: “red-baiting” would have eroded decades of progressive institution-building, resurgence of white trust in white supremacist political institutions, and even denial of the actual history of the country and the world. At the same time, those who were radicalized as students in the 1960s and 1970s were becoming older, dying, had been arrested; and in few circumstances, received tenure at the universities that they had protested against in their youth. Horton would have perceived this as concerning–more talk, less action–even though the very reason those people were granted tenure was because of decades of organizing.

At play here is a “structure of feeling”, ideas about how talk and action must go together, or that action takes precedence over mere talk. In this case, the orientation towards “not talking about it” allowed folks at Highlander to do what they did. It also reveals resistance to “talk”, expressed in everyday phrases like “all talk, no action” and “not putting your money where your mouth is”.

Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. 1990. 
We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press


Prerna Srigyan


Creative Commons Licence




Group content visibility: 
Use group defaults