Tag Archives: Highlander

Septima Clark: Ready From Within

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.

Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:

However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…

I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)

These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.

I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.

This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:

But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.

…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)

She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.

Highlander Years

She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:

Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)

Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.
Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.

I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.

An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.

Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.

This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find...
This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find…

Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:

‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)

They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:

But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)

Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?

There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.

Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.

That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.

SCLC years

So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.

Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.

Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.

Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)

More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.

‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)

White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:

“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)

I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.

Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:

I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)

I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.

I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)

Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.

This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.

For more on education and struggle…





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…



Myles Horton: The Basics for the Long Haul

200275Things Myles Horton says often make you want to clap your hand against your forehead and say ‘of course!’ They are so simple, so true, so clear… They lack some of the complex theoretical framing of Paulo Freire’s work, which I am sure explains why they have not become as prevalent in academic discourses. Yet the two men worked along almost exactly the same lines developing critical praxis for changing the world. Horton speaks of decades of work and key support for two of the greatest social movements in the U.S., the 1930’s union movement and the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Through this retelling of his life and work, an incredible theory of education and social change emerges.

At bottom, the principle is so simple:

It’s the principle of trying to serve people and building a loving world. If you believe that people are of worth, you can’t treat anyone inhumanely, and that means you not only have to love and respect people, but you have to think in terms of building a society that people can profit from, and that kind of society has to work on the principle of equality. Otherwise, somebody’s going to be left out.

People always ask, “Can we wait till we have a society that’s perfect to have equality?” Well, of course, we’ll never  achieve it unless we start where we are, so you begin incorporating principles of equality into everything you do. That’s complicated, because it’s hard to avoid domination or inequality, or paternalism: but the principle itself isn’t complicated, it’s the application that’s complicated. (7)

All of the elaborations of both Freire and Horton among others are trying to figure out just how you incorporate equality, love and respect into everything you do, what that means. He has a vision similar to Freire’s on what the point of life really is:

I think that people aren’t fully free until they’re in a  struggle for justice. And that means for everyone. It’s a struggle of such importance that they are willing, if necessary, to die for it. I think that’s what you have to do before you’re really free. (184)

This shit makes me tear up just a bit, because it’s true. And me, I’ve been involved in struggle a long time but not quite achieved this full freedom yet. I’m not sure if it’s more distant now or not as I struggle to plug back in to meaningful work as a writer, an academic, a volunteer activist rather than an organizer. I think much of this will happen once I’m finally able to settle down again, put down roots, involve myself for the long term in a community. I am looking forward to that, and a job. But there are words of comfort here about that

I had to turn my anger into a slow burning fire, instead of a consuming fire. You don’t want the fire to go out — you never let it go out–and if it ever gets weak, you stoke it, but you don’t want it to burn you up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it, because you don’t want to be destroyed by it. (80)

Also in recognising the strength of what we are up against, and that this struggle is an ongoing one where we only play a part. Thus, the title:

I had to come to grips with this when I realized that the capitalist system was more viable than I had thought. It had more ways of lasting than I had understood from my experience in the Depression, when a lot of people, including me, thought that capitalism was on its last legs. When I finally found out it wasn’t even limping, that Roosevelt’s job was to make it work, and he did make it work, I realized that you had to slow down the fire, because you’d burn up the fuel and it would be over. That’s when I started trying to calm myself down, step by step, that it wasn’t going to come as a great explosion automatically. It had to be made, or it wouldn’t happen.

That’s when I started saying, “Horton, get yourself together, get ready for the long haul..” (81)

So…the basics of Horton’s teaching. First, that change must be collectively won through action upon the world:

I changed and became philosophically a socialist. I understood that you couldn’t act alone, and that you couldn’t withdraw into a utopian community. To deal with injustice you had to act in the world. you had to share what you knew. (30)

Popular education thus must be a collective enterprise:

It isn’t a matter of each one teach one. It’s a matter of having a concept of education that is yeasty, one that will multiply itself. You have to think in terms of which small groups have the potential to multiply themselves and fundamentally change society.

Therefore, you can’t have each individual go her or his own way and work separately. the people you deal with have to work with you in the name of a group, not for their own personal reasons. (57)

That this collective action is not just some idealistic pipe dream:

In the civil rights movement we saw people come out of the fields and get in the voter registration line and be beaten up and shot at and become leaders and run for office and get elected. Since we’ve seen that, we don’t think of ourselves as utopian.
My job is to provide opportunities for people to grow (not to make them grow, because no one can do that), to provide a climate which nurtures islands of decency, where people can learn in such a way that they continue to grow. (133)

A final recognition that through inaction you are as much a part of the dynamic as through action:

I do not  believe in neutrality. Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. (139)

To work as an educator to achieve such a nurturing climate in our society requires a particular kind of framework and understanding that are very much based in standing with the poor and oppressed (even if you weren’t raised among them, it’s your choice). First, it is to understand the lived reality of the poor and people of colour and women  — in my own life this has been one of the biggest gaps in activist circles, and the lack of such understanding in others has been one of the most frustrating to overcome.

I didn’t have to work out theories about the violence of poverty, because I had been close to it all my life. The violence of poverty destroys families, twists minds, hurts in many ways beyond the pain of hunger.

There is another kind of violence that supports the violence of poverty, and that is institutionally sanctioned violence. We live in a violent society, a violent world; that is, a world in which force is a vital mechanism used to keep the economic and social system intact. We have laws that are backed up by a police force; and the state, when the police force can’t control defiance, is backed up by armies. The laws of the land are supported by the use of violence…If you oppose things in that system, then all those powers of violence can be used to force you into line. If you’re trying to change things, first you have to know that violence can be used against you, and second, you have to know what strategies to use in order to change the system, given that situation. (27 – 28)

Perhaps sharing this assessment and lived experience of such structural violence (while of course recognising the very real differences and my relative privilege compared to Horton and so many others) is why I completely agree with his assessment on violence as opposed to non-violence:

You have to fit violent revolutions into the whole context of thinking about violence. Violence is relative. Sometimes a revolution can be a lesser form of violence if people are suffering intolerably under their currently entrenched rulers. There are many kinds of violence: physical violence, mental violence, the kind of violence that causes babies to be born with brain damage because their mothers didn’t have the proper food, the violence that suppresses people’s expression of beliefs and ideas… (38)

For a time Horton was part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he engaged in many discussions about this. It would also be a key discussion point for members of SNCC, working in the murderous South. Charles Cobb describes remarkably similar conclusions to Horton’s below:

I believed that it was a matter of determining what was the lesser violence, not choosing between violence and nonviolence. Most of the poor people in the world don’t have that kind of choice. The people at this meeting were more privileged, and they could afford to take a theoretical stance. I was always needling about their unrealistic position. (39)

I wish I had been there. I wish too I had more of this uncompromising yet loving attitude that always speaks up…I would have probably sat angry but mostly silent in such meetings.

Key, of course, is that this is all about working with people to create a better world, to ‘incorporate the principles of equality into everything you do’, knowing that this means starting with where people are and moving upwards together.

Since I chose to work with poor, oppressed people, I had to take into consideration that they’d never been allowed to value their own experience; that they’d been told it was dirt and that only teachers and experts knew what was good for them.

I knew that it was necessary to do things in the opposite way…It also became clear that there had to be a place where people could learn how to make decisions by actually making real decisions. That’s how you learn anything–by doing it. (57)

Always a goal, its practice still emerged at Highlander through learning from mistakes:

We ended up doing what most people do when they come to a place like Appalachia: we saw problems that we thought we had the answers to, rather than seeing the problems and the answers that the people had themselves. That was our basic mistake. Once you understand that, you don’t have to have answers, and you can open up new ways of doing things.

Another idea we didn’t fully understand is that one of the best ways of educating people is to give them an experience that embodies what you are trying to teach. When you believe in a democratic society, you provide a setting for education that is democratic. (68)

People learn more through a process of dialogue and practice, rather than through a taught curriculum. Returning to the understanding of the violence inherent in the system, this praxis is never safe, nor conflict free.

It’s dangerous to do this kind of education, to push the boundaries to the place where people might be fired or get in some other kind of trouble… If people don’t take chances, they’ll never keep pushing. They must explore and push as far as they can. People get the exhilaration of liberating themselves, pushing that boundary… by the time they do, they are liberated enough that they are not going to spend the rest of their lives boxed in, and of course most of the time they land on their feet. (183)

To me this is as effective a message as Freire’s philosophy of humanization and dialogue, and it has to rest firm on a belief that we are here on this earth for more than just getting through each day. Risk is part of change, and it is part of becoming fully human.

I don’t think you help people by keeping them enslaved to something that is less than they are capable of doing and believing. … My position was that I believed in changing society by first changing individuals, so that they could then struggle to bring about social changes. There’s a lot of pain in it, and a lot of violence, and conflict, and that is just part of the price you pay. I realized that was part of growth–and growth is painful.

Trusting people — the role of the intellectual

You don’t have to know the answers. The answers come from the people, and when they don’t have any answers, then you have another role, and you find resources. (23)

This is key to it all, the belief that collectively, through critical dialogue, people will come up with the answers they need, and steadily refine and expand them over time.

People have a potential for growth; it’s inside, it’s in the seeds. This kind of potential cannot guarantee a particular outcome, but it’s what you build on. (133)

The role of the educator lies in creating a safe space and a process for the collective undoing of oppressions, bringing resources to bear when needed. This process is the only thing that can create the desired outcome.

If we are to have a democratic society, people must find or invent new channels through which decisions can be made. Given genuine decision-making powers, people will not only learn rapidly to make socially useful decisions, but they will also assume responsibility for carrying out decisions based on their collective judgment. The problem is not that people will make irresponsible or wrong decisions. It is, rather, to convince people who have been ignored or excluded in the past that their involvement will have meaning and that their ideas will be respected. The danger is not too much, but too little participation.

Popular education should give people experience in making decisions. Many take it for granted that people can make decisions, but actually, the majority of us are not allowed to make decisions about most of the things that are important. I have been put on the spot about the contradiction between my views on people making their own decisions and my action in making decisions that affect people’s experience at Highlander, such as my insisting there can be no discrimination or lack of freedom of speech. I think, however, if you’re going to help people make decisions, it’s important to show them that the decisions they make must be responsible. Whenever you take a position, you’ve made a decision. The decision at Highlander from its beginning in the 1930s to practice social equality was a big one – with legal, practical and moral implications. (134)

A little more on Myles Horton’s vision of democracy:

Democracy needs to be not only political but part of the fabric of society as a whole. When I use the word “democracy,” it is not limited to political decision making, to voting. It is a philosophical concept meaning that people are really free and empowered to make collectively the decisions that affect their lives. (169)

The practice of popular education

I like to think that I have two eyes that I don’t have to use the same way…I try to see with one eye where these people are as they perceive themselves to be…You have to start where people are, because their growth is going to be from there, not from some abstraction or where you are or somewhere else is.

Now my other eye is not such a problem, because I already have in mind a philosophy of where I’d like to see people moving. (131)

This movement happens, just as for Freire, as a natural outcome of critical and collective discussion in a circle:

I think of an educational workshop as a circle of learners. “circle” is not an accidental term, for there is no head of the table at Highlander workshops; everybody sits around in a circle. (150)

At Highlander there were two guiding principles:

nobody can be discriminated against, for any reason, and there is freedom to say anything or take any position on the topic of the workshop. (155)

It is, however, understood in advance, that students have to stay on topic. No rants on other things…we have all met those folks who enjoy that sort of thing. The working assumptions for each workshop (and I am paraphrasing here) are:

1. a workshop has to have a goal arising out a social problem that the students perceive
2. people have within themselves the potential, intelligence, courage and ability to solve their own problems
3. the Highlander experience can add to and enrich the educational experience
4. in addition to learning from their peers, Highlander staff members should have an opportunity to interact in the field with the students.
5. factual information and analysis presented has to be tailored to the expressed needs of the participants It is meant to be usable knowledge that can help when people return home.
6. follow-up receives special attention

Above all this is a process of praxis embedded in a community:

The most important part of a workshop come from what has happened in a community before the workshop itself, and what happens when people go home and act. (153)

A final reminder on why this kind of practice is so important, because any other simply reifies what the capitalist system currently imposes:

Any educational philosophy comes out of what you do and how you deal with people. When you believe in people and in the importance of trying to create a democracy, you must turn these beliefs into practice, and if you don’t believe in the free enterprise system and individual competitiveness, you practice group action and cooperation…(175)

This is one of three posts, the next looks at Highlander’s connection to social movement, and the third at the difference between popular education as Myles Horton practiced and envisioned it, and his understanding of community organizing as practised by Saul Alinsky and others.

[Horton, Myles with Judith and Herbert Kohl. (1998) the long haul: an autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.]



Movement Halfway Houses

22493I quite love the idea of Movement Halfway Houses, explored in Aldon D. Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought I’d blog it separately from the stupidly long look at the main thrust of the book itself. I have read so much of Freire and Horton, worked in popular education for a long time and have thought a lot about what the hell we organizers do when there is no real rumbling of the masses and popular uprising in the wind. Apart from long for these days past when everything seemed possible.

It seems to me, we build these. Analytically, this is what Morris argues they are:

A movement halfway house is an established group or organization that is only partially integrated into the larger society because its participants are actively involved in efforts to being about a desired change in society. The American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Highlander Folk Schools are examples… They don’t have a mass base, instead they ‘develop a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.’ (139-140)

Because mass uprising may have a level of spontaneity, but it can take different forms both good and really fucking virulent. Because democracy and collective action are learned, they are skills rather than some kind human nature that just comes out when called. Because strategy and tactics shouldn’t be continually reinvented (though always innovated). Because inspiration from our elders is so important — and young organizers always become elders in their turn and we don’t have good ways to manage that at all.

Morris focuses on the Highlander Folk School and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in the Appalachian mountains. This is why he is a hero of mine, arguing ‘oppressed people know the answers to their own problems’ but ‘the answers to problems of the oppressed lie in the experiences and imagination of the group rather than individuals.’

To arrive at liberatory knowledge and praxis requires a group, a collective, it needs to work through dialogue. Morris argues it is based on the following assumptions:

  1. Education through experience was a potent social change force.
  2. The solutions to oppression were rooted in the experience and communities of the oppressed.
  3. People and their situations would inform Highlander’s educational programs.
  4. The task of changing society rested on the shoulders of the oppressed. (142-143)

They worked with unions through the Great Depression and demanded integration of all union workshops beginning in 1940. Horton did things like bring beauticians in for workshops from all over the South because saw that they were community leaders, and wanted them to work for integration. Highlander sponsored the amazing citizenship schools that were later passed on to the SCLC to grow:

Movement activists of various pursuasions stated repeatedly that the Citizenship Schools were one of the most effective organizing tools of the movement. The “less militant” aspects of the movement like the Citizenship Schools were a significant mobilizing factor throughout the movement, often serving as “quiet structures” behind what appeared to be spontaneous uprisings. (239)

Rosa Parks was a regular figure here, as was King and all the other figures we know and love from the movement. It was the one place in the South that was fully integrated, living this reality before many could even begin to imagine it. Student leaders met here to strategise and train for the sit-ins, even before they formed SNCC. Local authorities saw it as a threat, they faced multiple threats and violence. They were closed by court order. For a bit. But not for long. They were instrumental as a place for reflection, difficult discussion, collective learning and sharing. But in the words of Myles Horton:

Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are. We might have been pretty good, at least the enemies thought so. But not that good, you know. (157)

The movement might have looked very different, however, without the existence of Highlander.

The same can be said of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another example of a movement halfway house. Morris argues it was instrumental to the civil rights movement in 5 ways:

  1. in the organization and development of CORE
  2. a vehicle through which the method & history of nonviolent protest was introduced to Southern Black communities and the emerging leadership of the civil rights movement.
  3. provided MIA ‘with “an intelligence service,” which gathered information from white opposition groups
  4. made available well-trained staff members and continued to pay their salaries,
  5. … provided the emerging movement with important literature and films. (157)

Morris emphasises the fact that nonviolence was not part of a long tradition. He quotes organizer Hosea Williams as saying

Nonviolence as a way of life was just as foreign to blacks as flying a space capsule would be to a roach. (158)

In a nutshell this shows the remarkable feat it was to convert the Southern black community to nonviolence, through continuous workshops and appeals to ‘nonviolent tradition rooted in the black church and in the life of Jesus’. (158)

Still, it was for many just a tactic to reach a specific goal (there’s a wonderful discussion of this in That Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed), but as a tactic it was widely embraced. After the Supreme Court decided Montgomery’s segregation of buses was unconstitutional, one of FOR’s nonviolence workshops held to prepare people for struggle to fully desegregate trained over 5,000 people.

5,000 people. God damn. I get organizer chills again.

They did research, collected intelligence, shared best practices both within the movement and learning from other struggles around the world. They also documented the movement — a thing organizers never have time to do. They published a comic book to reach all those folks who don’t like to read on the dynamics of the Montgomery bus boycott, titled it Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They made a film as well, called Walk to Freedom. Priceless footage to us now.

Just an aside as a researcher as well — there’s is another brillianr note on the role of research from the United Christian Movement, Inc (Louisiana). They knew they had a problem with infiltrators, hey created their own intelligence department, so they found out all about those they were up against. They would often announce plans to integrate libraries or movies on a certain day and then not show. Their aim? To ‘devastate’ stool pigeons. They also passed messages through codes in sermons and songs.

Anyway, I’ll quote Myles again saying ‘Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are.’ But they are shaped by them, supported by them, and documented by them for future generations. All of these things make these key institutions in building a better future. Maybe the same can be said of writers and academics as well, when they do their job well. One can hope.