Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Highlander Center

News of the death of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks contained deep in it this sentence: "At the urging of an employer, Virginia Durr, Mrs. Parks had attended an interracial leadership conference at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., in the summer of 1955." She learned at Highlander the concept of non-violent resistance. She learned it from Myles Horton and his wife Zilphia, who ran the Highlander School.

(As a kid in West Texas I remember billboards, both the "IMPEACH EARL WARREN" screamers and the ones showing a photograph of Martin Luther King "at a Communist training school." The so-called Communist training school was in fact Highlander. The sure-fire way to shut up opposition in the 1950s was to brand it "Communist." They use different labels now, but with the same intent.)

When I first got to Highlander, it was no longer located on the Cumberland Plateau and Myles Horton was no longer in charge. I did meet him eventually, and eventually it was my honor to publish the interview Bill Moyers did with Myles Horton, "The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly."

I went to Highlander the first time in 1977, hard on the heels of massive flooding in the Appalachians but particularly destructive floods in southern West Virginia, made all the worse by strip mining. I met there with a whole new generation of mountain young people who were becoming radicalized by the strip-mining issue and the whole notion that Appalachia was treated like a resource "colony" by the rest of the nation. I met Gurney Norman for the first time. Pauletta Hansel was there. And arriving fresh from the floods in southern West Virginia, full of righteous fury, were Jim Webb and Bob Henry Baber.

These guys and many others who were at Highlander, and a whole host of foot soldiers who weren't there, were turning the tide of public opinion against rich coal corporations that robbed the mineral, reduced the landscape to a barren moonscape of scars, and left the people destitute. Soon after, the Carter administration passed and signed the Strip Mine Reclamation Act.

But as we've learned the hard way, federal regs are only as good as the administration running the government. Following Carter, we got 12 years of Republican predatory policies (ah, "Reaganomics"!), succeeded by some amelioration during eight years of Bill Clinton. With the Second Bush, mountaintop removal has been unleashed with a renewed fury.

Highlander endures as the Highlander Research & Education Center at New Market, Tennessee, still dedicated to helping local activists teach themselves the tools they need to organize local people into movements for positive change.

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