Challenging Power

After nearly 70 years, the Highlander school still helps people fight for a piece of the pie

You could trace a good chunk of the labor and social movements of the 20th century by following Tommy Gibson's history.

His dad worked for years in the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania, eventually dying of black lung in the late '80s. Growing up in the '60s and '70s, Tommy watched his older siblings protest during the Civil Rights movement. "I remember them going to have sit-ins. It was a lot of protests," he says.

Gibson worked in the steel mills of Bethlehem for a few years but was laid off, a victim of downsizing. He then went to work for Mack, building tractor-trailers. It was good job, paying more than $14 an hour. But the company decided to relocate in 1986 to the non-unionized environment of South Carolina, where it could pay cheaper wages. Gibson followed his job, even though it meant a 50 percent cut in pay.

Adjusting to life in Columbia, S.C., was difficult, and he wasn't sure he'd stay. The working conditions were a lot tougher than in Pennsylvania. "You couldn't go to the bathroom without raising your hand, or chew gum," he says. And the company spread rumors about the Northerners and none of his new co-workers would talk to him, he says. He decided to stay and fight. Three years after he started working there, he helped get a United Auto Workers chapter started at the plant.

Shortly after that, he started feeling the effects of the globalized economy. Renault bought out Mack truck, and Volvo just bought out Renault. He's hopeful, but concerned that he will again end up getting downsized.

All of these things conspired a few weeks ago to bring him to a quiet hillside farm in New Market, Tennessee, with a gorgeous view of the Smoky Mountain foothills. The place is called Highlander Research and Education Center, and it has a history of agitating for social justice that dates back 69 years.

Labeled a "communist training school" in years past, rumors have also at various times branded it a nudist camp and a drug distribution center. Highlander played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s, serving as a training ground, retreat and refuge for those who fought on the front lines of the movement. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark, Stokely Carmichael, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others have spent time here.

Since the mid-'70s, the center has been largely out of the headlines, but it's been active nonetheless, hosting hundreds of people like Tommy Gibson. The hope is that sooner or later, an array of groups—poor people, African Americans, gays and lesbians, women, Latinos, youth, disabled—will rise up and form a movement similar to the labor or Civil Rights eras and seize power for themselves.

"We feel it's like 1948. We think there's all this stuff bubbling around us, in particular where there's immigrants coming in," says Suzanne Pharr, Highlander's director. "People are really beginning to look at this global economy and recognize that something is really wrong. And asking, 'Why is it there's no stable work in this country? Why are people continually moving to chase jobs? Why is it I have to pay $100 for a pair of shoes I know someone in China was paid 25 cents an hour to make?' People are beginning to say, 'How is this all linked?'"

"It gives me hope," she adds.

On Dec. 1, 1955, a tired seamstress left work and boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Ala. She took the first seat available to black people, about in the middle. A few stops later, whites filled up the seats in front of her, and the bus driver moved the colored line back a few seats behind her.

The driver demanded that Rosa Parks relinquish her seat. She refused and was arrested, and the rest is legend—Parks' defiance sparked a boycott of Montgomery's bus system by African Americans and ultimately forced its integration. Today, her refusal is one of the milestones of the Civil Rights movement—a heroic NO that changed the world.

However, Parks' protest didn't happen in a vacuum. It wasn't only the result of one courageous person taking a stand. Rather, she was one of many people who had begun talking about the wrongs of racism and was looking for change.

Parks had been at a number of Highlander workshops on integration and civil disobedience before the bus boycott. The workshops—and the connections she made there—had a profound impact.

"At Highlander, I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of differing races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops and living together in peace and harmony," Parks recalled later, according to Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander, by Frank Adams. "It was a place I was very reluctant to leave. I gained there strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but all oppressed people."

Pharr sees the popular legend of Parks as part of a tendency to view history in terms of heroes and villains, a few noble souls with the courage to challenge tyranny. "There's been such a movement toward individualism and characterizing things in isolation rather than in relation to each other," she says.

"It leads us to think we need to have a hero to have a movement rather than needing to have people working together. The media has moved from getting news to telling stories. It's a cult of personality."

Highlander has never laid claim to starting those movements, but it has tried fertilize and prod them along.

Originally called the Highlander Folk School, it was formed in 1932 by Myles Horton. Horton got the idea organizing vacation Bible schools in Ozone, Tenn., in 1927, according to Adams' book. But Bible school didn't seem to do much for the impoverished community, ravaged by the timber and coal industries. Horton started holding meetings for Ozone residents to talk about their problems. Through these meetings, he realized that quite often the residents could find their own solutions.

It was on that philosophy that James Dombroski, Don West and Horton started Highlander in 1932 at Monteagle. Early on the school focused on labor issues. It broke ground in the early '40s by inviting African Americans to attend fully integrated classes and workshops. In the '50s, the focus shifted to the blooming Civil Rights movement. Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins worked with Highlander to develop a Citizenship School Program—teaching black citizens basic reading and writing skills so they could pass voter literacy tests—which spread throughout the South and became a cornerstone of the movement.

Highlander's efforts did not go unnoticed. A series of billboards around the South showed a picture of King at the school, with the caption: MARTIN LUTHER KING AT COMMUNIST TRAINING SCHOOL. The Tennessee state Legislature investigated and the school was charged with being integrated (illegal at the time), selling beer, teaching communism, and violating its charter.

Some of the "incriminating" testimony from Ed Friend, an Atlanta photographer who had been at the school, gives a good idea how farcical the proceedings were, and also how different times were: "I saw white and colored women coming out of the same house the next morning. I was looking for anything detrimental to our country, and I saw plenty....Their primary motive was to mix the races. My wife was so disgusted with it all that I took her back to the motel nearby. She just lay down on the bed and cried."

The state eventually revoked the school's charter and seized all its property and belongings, auctioning them off in 1961. The attacks made life difficult for Highlander but ultimately galvanized it. Forty years later, the effects resonate.

"When Highlander lost its building and its charter, it attracted the attention of a lot of people," says Scot Nakagawa, who works both on Highlander's development and education teams. "The attacks may have done some damage but they also did us a lot of good in that they made us fast friends with people interested in fighting for social justice."

Highlander moved to an old stucco house on Riverside Drive for about 10 years. In Knoxville, the Ku Klux Klan marched in front of it and Cas Walker tried to evict the school through legislation. People phoned in bomb threats. One caller asked, "How many little mulattos do you have running around there?" The woman at Highlander responded, "I don't know, how many are you missing?"

But Knoxville was never intended to be a permanent home, and the school moved in 1972 to the pastoral, retreat-worthy setting of New Market. (The old house on Riverside was torn down.)

Horton stepped down as director in 1973, although he remained active at the school and lived on the farm. He died in 1990.

Highlander's main meeting place is an octagonal room with pine floors. Light floods the room from several windows. Workshop participants sit facing each other in a circle, as they sway back and forth on wooden rocking chairs, which sporadically crick and creak.

Pharr is leading a session on fundraising, talking about all the different ways to raise money and what other benefits community groups can get out of them.

"You want to put yourself in a position to challenge power. If you're getting your money from the government who says 'you can do these things, these things and these things,' you're not going to be in a position to challenge power," Pharr says. "If you get your money directly from the people who say we want you to kick ass, you're in a position to challenge power."

Pharr's presentation is laid-back, quick and to the point. The first female director of Highlander, she's confident and not afraid to take charge. But neither is she afraid to relinquish control to others.

Pharr first visited Highlander in the late 1970s. She met Horton but did not know him well (she says they later argued; she thought he missed the women's movement and was missing the gay and lesbian movement).

A Georgia native, Pharr moved to Arkansas where she founded the Woman's Project in 1981, in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. "At that time, few organizations worked with women and none worked across races," she says. "We felt like our job was to keep a radical agenda going in the state."

The group documented domestic violence and hate crimes, and monitored extreme right-wing groups like the Klan and the survivalist movement. It pushed for the rights of women, ethnic and religious minorities, and gays, lesbians and the transgendered. While there, she wrote two books, In The Time of the Right and Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. She's been on the board of Highlander since the mid-'90s and became director in 1999.

Aware of the way news media manipulate people and stories and how those stories can be interpreted, she's extremely self-conscious about how much of the spotlight she'll take at Highlander and is always ready to direct reporters to other staff members.

"You have to swear you will not describe me as a physical wisp of a woman," Pharr says, half-jokingly. She is small, but not tiny. And friendly, but not afraid to speak bluntly.

The rest of the 17-member staff is very varied: African Americans, gays and lesbians, a Hawaiian, a Liberian, two Mexicans, and a number of whites, including three from the rural area around New Market.

Tami Newman is a lifelong resident of East Tennessee, and came to Highlander after she got a divorce in 1983. Two of her aunts already worked here, but she didn't really know much about the place. "I couldn't figure out how I'd missed it. There are so many people around us who have no idea we're here. There's still stories from the old days about this being a nudist camp," she says. "Once I got here it was like, 'Wow. This is different.'

"Now, if I tell people where I work, they say, 'Oh, what's that? Oh, you teach people to read?' No, these people from different areas all come and discuss their problems and ideas together and the staff plays a facilitator role."

That succinct description is pretty much what Highlander does these days, with the clarification that the people coming here generally belong to powerless groups.

Highlander currently has three programs, each drawing on organizations around the country. The organizations come to Highlander for workshops on various issues and get advice on how to do things like organize, raise money, deal with the press, etc. The subjects have been selected by the groups themselves, and the Highlander staff lets them control the meetings as much as possible.

None of the groups pays to come here—Highlander covers the expenses on its $1.3 million budget. About 50 to 55 percent of that money comes from foundations, the rest from private donations, sales of books, T-shirts and CDs, some fundraisers, cattle and hay from its farm, and rental of its facility to other groups. Pharr says the percent of foundation support is low; most non-profit groups get about 75 percent of their money from foundations.

There's a dormitory with room for about 30 people and a small cafeteria. A library has a lot of resource material on social, economic and environmental issues—shelves filled with guides to toxic chemicals, Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, the Diary of Che Guevara, books on Congress, economics, feminist treatises. The library is open to the public, but Pharr stresses that there's not a lot of opportunity for people to come in off the streets and get involved.

The work is focused on its programs. The one that people here are probably most excited about is the Pueblos de Latin America, which is made up of 10 Latino organizations, some national and some smaller regional groups. There's also some that work exclusively with migrants whose second language is Spanish. Highlander has hosted all-Spanish workshops, and hopes to do more.

Pueblos hopes to show these new Latino organizations how they can organize and fight for power, better wages and working conditions. They also get information on topics like globalization, the prison industry, racial analysis, and homophobia, so they can make connections.

"Latino people are somewhat reluctant to get involved with activist organizations because most of them are white liberal groups who don't want to learn Spanish," says Paulina Hernandez, an intern who worked at Highlander this summer. "We're hoping for it to grow into a consolidated movement. Right now, we're just putting plans down. Then we'll be getting to them."

Similarly, the Young and the Restless group consists of organizations of people who are 13 to 23 years old, from around the Southeast. About half of them are Latino.

The third program, Southern Progress (to which Tommy Gibson of Columbia belongs) is a made up of more traditional progressive groups in the South, including women's rights, labor, anti-poverty, indigenous, gay and lesbian, anti-violence and church groups.

"It's refreshing and encouraging to hear other people's stories because then you know you're not alone," says Lilith Quinlan, who works with Common Ground, a Georgia group trying to start a refuge and retreat house for staff members of women's shelters, which have a high rate of burnout and turn-over.

Ricardo Parra-Lesso, a Mexican who works on the Pueblos program, says he remembers the first time he came here. "What really came to my mind was this was a safe place for anybody and it was a safe place to gather," he says. "You could talk to anybody here about problems that you're having and know they're going to try to help."

Things don't always run so smoothly, of course. At a workshop not long ago, a participant was cornered one evening by other participants who were fundamentalist Christians. They told him he was headed to hell for being gay, says Connie Leeper, who works on the education team. The Highlander staff responded by having a session on homosexuality, talking about what the Bible says and how it is interpreted.

Leeper is familiar with the ways that power structures operate and how they can stifle. She grew up in a company textile mill town in North Carolina. She was tracked in school at an early age to work in the mills. "I was taught how to weave. I never had a vision of going to college," she says.

In her teens, she got involved with a Lutheran project to fight racism. But in that faith women weren't allowed to be ordained. "I quickly made a connection that there was little emphasis on the role of women," she says.

"When [prejudice] happens here it will be challenged. It won't be in your face, but it will be direct. You won't be asked to leave. If anyone is excluded, it means any of us can be excluded. People come as they are. Hopefully they'll leave with a better understanding.

"Being safe isn't the same as being comfortable," she says. "We all have a comfort zone that gets challenged. What we can do is guarantee safety from violence—not just physical but verbal and psychological violence."

The people who work at Highlander are not naive. They know the cards are stacked against the communities they serve and that there's a lot to overcome. They know from experience that people who wield power will fight like hell to keep from losing it—and they've gotten better at holding onto it. But there is a real hope and excitement right now that all of this could change.

When Scot Nakagawa was a little boy, he assumed he'd end up working in the Hawaiian sugar cane plantation that he grew up next to. "Our backyard bordered on an irrigation ditch and sugar-cane field. I played in it," he says. He was poor, but he was raised by his grandmother, who had a strong notion of social justice. She worked to organize the plantation workers to fight for better pay and working conditions.

The experience led him into labor organizing and then teaching. When he got older, he moved to Oregon where he worked with various groups advocating for the homeless and gay rights, and monitoring neo-fascist organizations. An old friend of Pharr's, he came to Highlander in January looking for a change.

Surprisingly, Nakagawa feels at home in East Tennessee. "Appalachia is so much like Hawaii. Hawaii was a colony, Appalachia feels like a colony of the United States. People here have been exploited horribly," he says. "Companies took and put very little back. You see it in the way that people are marginalized."

He's ambivalent about whether a major social movement is in the works.

"What is apparent to me is the right wing has lost momentum. They've won the White House, they're the mainstream—their activist folks are moving away from them," he says.

"When you get right down to it, while there are lots of good ideas, no one's really sure what makes social movements occur. What we do know is they happen.

"I believe it's about entitlement. When I was a small boy in Hawaii, Hawaiians got very little respect. I was raised with shame about my heritage. I believed what people said about my community—that we were lazy and we were poor because we're not good enough.

"There's a major movement rising up now in Hawaii—it all began with people saying, I deserve something better than this. I don't know what caused that to happen, but when it happened it spread like wildfire. People are tired of being in a charitable relationship because that never comes with any kind of power. People themselves have the solutions to the problems they're dealing with. If only they believed that."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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