Myles Horton: Popular Education and Social Movement

200275Myles Horton lived and contributed to some of the most pivotal social movements in the US, making his thoughts on social movement as interesting as his experiences of education as liberatory and revolutionary. Both before and after the founding of Highlander, he studied with and learned from other movements and institutions working on projects of transformative change. As a young man he briefly attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then took classes at the University of Chicago — argued and learned from Robert Park and Jane Addams at Hull House:

I learned a lot about social movements, the concepts of how organizations work, while I was at Chicago. I knew that people as individuals would remain powerless, but if they could get together in organizations, they could have power, provided they used their organizations instead of being used by them. I understood the need for organizations, but I was always afraid of what they did to people…they end up in structures and structures become permanent and most of them outlive their usefulness. (49)

This tension is a constant one. It is at the centre of so much argument over what the nature of social movement and just how we should go about both creating and consolidating change. Some, like Piven and Cloward, argue against all organisation that goes beyond a basic capacity for supporting mobilisation, others argue uncritically for organisation at all costs (especially those most invested in them). Myles Horton is naturally quite dialectical about it all.

There is a tradition of folk schools in Denmark, which Horton visited, then came back to his home country of the Appalachians and cofounded Highlander in 1932 with Don West and James Dombrowski. They raised money from subscribers through the Fellowship Of Reconciliation (FOR — another movement organisation to be further explored), which they had ties too, as well as socialist networks.

Highlander, Monteagle, Tennessee

During the Great Depression, it came to be central in the rising labour movement. I myself have never been lucky to be part of or witness anything like the power of the 1930s labour movement or 1950s-60s civil rights movement. Horton writes:

The best educational work at Highlander has always taken place when there is social movement. We’ve guessed right on two social movements–the labor movement in the 1930s and 40s, and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. During movement times, the people involved have the same problems and can go from one community to the next, start a conversation in one place and finish it in another. (84)

Of course, most of the time you’re not this lucky.

Now we’re in what I call an organizational period, which has limited objectives, doesn’t spread very rapidly and has a lot of paid people and bureaucracy. It’s completely different from what takes place when there is a social movement. During organization times you try to anticipate a social movement, and if it turns out that you’ve guessed right, then you’ll be on the inside of a movement helping with the mobilization and strategies, instead of on the outside jumping on the bandwagon and never being an important part of it. You try to figure out what’s going to happen so that you can position yourself in such a way as to become part of it: you do things in advance to prepare the groundwork for a larger movement. That way, you’re built into it when the momentum begins. It’s like learning to ride freight trains. (84)

This ‘figuring out’ isn’t remote or terribly theoretical, it involves listening to people and remaining connected to struggle:

Years later we anticipated the civil rights movement, not because we did an analysis and concluded there was going to be one, but because we found that with everything we tried, we’d get only so far before we’d run up against the playing off of blacks against whites. It was a barrier that stopped us from moving toward our goal of economic democracy. (87)

Part of the reason they were so aware of this, is that Highlander was for decades the only place in the south where people both black and white could stay, eat and meet together. This alone was revolutionary as for decades, beginning with its educational work in the labour movement, Highlander fought segregation through its daily practice.

For more on the difference between long organizational periods and periods of social movement:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that it can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. People see that other people not so different from themselves do things they thought could never be done. They’re embold­ened and challenged by that to step into the water, and once they get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

People who work to create a decent world long for situations like this, but most of the time we are working with organizations. We cannot create movements, so if we want to be part of a movement when it comes, we have to get ourselves into a position-by working with organizations that deal with structural change-to be on the inside of that movement when it comes, instead of on the outside trying to get accepted.

When you’re in an organizational period, which is most of the time, there can be many organizations without there being a move­ment… (114)

Citizenship Schools

Highlander was at a crossroads in the late 40s and early 50s, phasing out of union organizing as they had succeeded in helping the unions become ready to further organize and work on their own. They tried to start up conversations around building a liberal labour-farmer coalition, but that went nowhere. Quite naturally they also began to focus on racism. They had been confronting this for many years,  also they had more and more people from Africa and Asia arriving for conferences unable to feel comfortable anywhere else in the south. Education director Septima Clark (there will be more about her) made a proposal for schools to help people learn enough to pass Jim Crow literacy tests so that they could vote.

Bernice Robinson taught the first classes and helped craft the program. A niece of Septima Clarke, she also worked as a black beautician — her business a social centre, as well as a job of status and independence in the community with its economic independence of whites. Bernice and the first 14 students decided to call it a citizenship school. The first thing on the wall that they learned to read was the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. (In Septima Clark’s memory it was the constitution they learned from — there are some interesting minor differences in the ways she and Horton remember things, but more on that in another post).

Horton describes that decision:

Since we were operating from the basis that these were adults with dignity, it was important to challenge them with something worthy of the attention an concern of an adult. (103)

also the other aspect of the curriculum:

Along with becoming literate, they learned to organize, they learned to protest, they learned to demand their rights, because they also learned that you couldn’t just read and write yourself into freedom. You had to fight for that and you had to do it as part of a group, not as an individual. (104)

None of the teachers were formally trained — it was thought teachers would be unable to resist recreating traditional models of education which did not respect the knowledge and life experiences of their students or succeed in teaching adults differently from children. All of them came from the communities they taught in. I particularly liked how he described his advising role in the founding of the programme:

I made up a movie in my mind of what would happen during those three months, and when I’d see certain tings going wrong in my mind’s eye I’d re-edit the film or erase the movie and start over again. Then I replayed the film until I finally got most of the bugs out of it…I’d sit by the hour… (101)

The citizenship schools became wildly successful, an idea whose time had come.

The job of Highlander was to multiply leadership for radical social change. The Citizenship School during the  civil rights period is an example. It’s been estimated that more than one hundred thousand people were reached by the Citizenship Schools. In my opinion, the truth is that nobody knows how many people were involved. They could’ve just said, “a helluva lot of people” and it would have been about as accurate. (115)

Given the dialectic between organisation and structure and programming, and innovation and flexibility in a supportive role more to do with creating space for people to come together outside of the limitations of the structures they worked within, the citizenship schools were spun off to become part of SCLC programme. Horton writes:

We tried to find ways of working that did not duplicate what was already being done. To be true to our vision, it was necessary to stay small and not get involved in mass education or in activities which required large amounts of money… We solved the problem of staying small by spinning off programs that were already established and were willingly taken over by organizations less interested in creating new programs… These spin-offs enabled Highlander to concentrate on cutting-edge programs that no one else in the region was undertaking. (138-139)

The Larger Civil Rights Movement

Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King and  Ella Baker along with the whole host of organisers from SNCC held a number of important meetings here.

The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation. (116)

This of course put Highlander at risk. In 1961, Tennessee District Attorney shut down Highlander — raiding it and arresting those who were there on charges of selling liquor without a license and for holding interracial classes. The trial resulted in the State’s confiscation of the property. Within two months of being locked up, someone had burned it down. Highlander temporarily moved to a big house in the black community of Knoxville. There they faced arson and firebombing attempts, the puncturing of their tires, and the shooting out of their windows. They survived there ten years, before moving back to another farm in rural Tennessee.

Horton again emphasises the conflict and violence involved in achieving meaningful change described more fully in the first post, and the ways that this is brought to the for during a period of social movement:

A large social movement forces people to take a stand for or against it, so that there are no longer any neutrals. You’ve got to be on one side or the other. It’s true that it forces some people to be worse than they would. be, more violent than they would be, but it also forces some people to get behind the cause and work for it and even die for it. People have to understand that you can’t make progress without pain, because you, can’t make progress with­out provoking violent opposition. If enough people want change and others stand in their way, they’re going to force them out of the way. A revolution is just the last step of a social movement after it has taken a pre-revolutionary form. (114)


Another aspect of social movement is its leadership — and most prominent is always leadership of a different kind than that provided by Highlander.

The only problem I have with movements has to do with  my reservations about charismatic leaders. There’s something about having one that can keep democracy from working effectively. But we don’t have movements without them. That’s why I had no intellectual problem supporting King as a charismatic leader. (120)

This issue of charisma is an important one, brought up by Aldon Morris, Piven and Cloward and others theorising social change. I like Horton’s very practical approach:

One thing I especially like about social movements is that even though they throw up charismatic leaders, most of the people who are part of them can learn to be educators and organizers. High­lander was able to play a role in developing educators because we were asked to do the educational work by both SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). We trained the people who ran the Citizenship Schools and the voter registra­tion drives, the noncharismatic people. That was when I learned, just as I had in the earlier industrial union period, that educational work during social movement periods provides the best opportunity for multiplying democratic leadership.

There is another important thing that social movements do: they radicalize people. That is, people learn from the movement to go beyond the movement. It may only affect a minority of the people, but there are so many people. involved that thousands of them get radicalized. (127)

A final point. For Horton the struggle was never just within the local area, the region or the nation — he emphasised that this approach must be international.  He traveled widely, part of building a network of people involved in this kind of liberatory praxis, and believed their approach connected Appalachia to other oppressed regions and areas, as well as other struggles and other people engaging in similar work such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Paulo Freire… What is not to love?

This is the second of three posts on Myles Horton’s The Long Haul, the first is on popular education basics, and the next will be contrasting popular education with community organising.

For more posts on popular education and struggle…



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