Nutshell Biographies #3     	
Center for Learning Through Community Service

Myles Horton and Highlander
Bill Moyers writes in the preface to Myles Horton's 
autobiography, "The Long Haul" that few people have seen as much 
change in the American South or helped to bring it about as Myles 
Horton.  "He was beaten up, locked up, put upon and railed against 
by racists, toughs, demagogues and governors.  But for more than 
fifty years, Horton went on with his special kind of teaching -- 
helping people to discover within themselves the courage and ability 
to confront reality and change it."

Myles Horton came to his mission from a childhood among the 
mountain people of Appalachia, a land rich in natural beauty but a 
colony of poverty.  "Nothing will change," said Horton to himself, 
"until we change -- until we throw off our dependence and act for 
ourselves."  So in 1932, in the mountains west of Chattanooga, in one 
of American's poorest counties, Myles Horton founded the Highlander 
Folk School, dedicated to the belief that poor working-class people -- 
adults -- could learn to take charge of their lives and circumstances.

At first he ran workshops to train union organizers for the CIO.  
Jim Crow laws forbade integration, but Horton, a white man, invited 
blacks and whites alike, and Highlander became one of the few 
places in the South where the two races could meet under the same 
roof.  In the early 1950s, Horton turned the emphasis of his 
workshops from union organizing to civil rights.  Highlander was now 
the principal gathering place of the moving forces of the Black 
revolution.  Martin Luther King Jr. came.  So did Rosa Parks, Andrew 
Young, Julian Bond, Stokeley Carmicheal, and scores of others.  The 
state tried to close it down, the Klan harassed it, state troopers raided 
it.  But Highlander was indestructible.  Now located in New Market, 
Tennessee, Highlander remains a training ground for community 
leaders from all over the world.(1)

Myles lived to his early nineties, working quietly to help 
people develop the capacity to make decisions and take 
responsibility for their communities.  "A good radical education, 
Myles once said," wouldn't be anything about methods or techniques:
it would be loving people first... And that means all people 
everywhere, not just your family or your own countrymen or your 
own color. And wanting for them what you want for yourself.  And 
then next is respect for people's abilities to learn and to act and to 
shape their own lives.  You have to have confidence that people can 
do that... The third thing is valuing their experiences.  You can't say 
you respect people if you don't respect their experience."(2)

Indeed, folks who spend time at Highlander learn most from 
sitting in the circle of rocking chairs in the big common room, telling 
stories about their own communities, gathering strength from each 
other's successes, consoling each other in their setbacks.  When Myles 
was facilitating workshops, he would stay in the background, keeping 
the discussion on track, encouraging people to make plans and take 
action, refusing to bring in experts to tell people what to do. 

So seriously did he take the idea that people should learn to 
trust their own experiences that one night, during the height of the 
union organizing, he found himself in a motel room with a strike 
committee in crisis.  It seems that the highway patrol had been 
escorting scab workers across picket lines and little by little, this 
tactic had eroded the strikers' solidarity.  After discussing different 
actions to take, none of which seemed feasible, they turned to Myles 
and said, 'Well now, you've had more experience than we have.  
You've got to tell us what to do.  You're the expert.'  	

'In the first place, I don't know what to do,' Myles replied, 'and 
if I did know, I wouldn't tell you because if I had to tell you today, 
then I'd have to tell you tomorrow, and when I'm gone you'd have to 
get somebody else to tell you.'   

This so infuriated one of the organizers that he pulled a gun out 
of his pocket and said, 'Goddamn you, if you don't tell us I'm going to 
kill you!'  But Myles kept his cool, even though, as he remarked later, 
"I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I 
know that if I did that, all would be lost, so I said, 'No, go ahead and 
shoot if you want to, but I'm not going to tell you.' And the others 
calmed him down."(3)

Despite his philosophy of non-intervention, Myles held strong 
political and moral convictions and encouraged others to do the same.  
"You have to take sides and know why you're taking sides," Myles 
often said. "There can be no such thing as neutrality.  It's a code 
word for the existing system. "(4)

Reflecting back on his youth, Myles remembered how he had 
become inspired to devote his life to social action.  "I'd get ideas from 
reading," he said.  "I'd get emboldened by it, especially poetry." He 
re-read the young poet Shelley, who spoke passionately for social 
justice, and decided he wouldn't let himself be subverted from what 
he knew was right. "I was going to going to do what I wanted to do 
regardless of anything, and the way to do it was not to be afraid of 
punishment and not to be tempted by rewards, not to want to be 
famous, nor get rich, have power, or be afraid of hell or threats and 
ostracism. And at that time I said, "It's not important to be good, it's 
important to be good for something."(5) 

Materials about Myles Horton and Highlander

Horton, Myles (1990) The long haul, An autobiography. NY: 

Horton, Myles and Freire, Paulo. (1990) We make the road by 
walking: Conversations on education and social change.  Temple 
University Press.

Glen, John. (1988) Highlander: No ordinary school.  University Press 
of Kentucky.

Community Economic Development Workshop (1991) Coming up the 
rough side of the mountain: Community Development Workshop, New 
Market, TN: Highlander Center

Highlander Research and Education Center, Knoxville, TN. (1985). 
Working Paper Series. Water: "You have to drink it with a fork..." 
Stories and resources from a water workshop at Highlander Center.

Highlander Research and Education Center (1980). "We're tired of 
being guinea pigs!": A handbook for citizens on environmental health 
in Appalachia. New Market, TN.

You've got to move: Stories of change in the South. (video, 87 
minutes) NY: First Run/Features 1985.

Adventures of a radical hillbilly. (video, 118 minutes) NY: WNET/13 
TV 1981.

(1) The preceeding text has been adapted from Bill Moyers' Preface to 
Myles Horton's Autobiography: The long haul.  NY: Doubleday, 1990.
(2) Horton, Myles  and Paulo Freire (1990) We make the road by 
walking: Conversations on education and social change. p.177
(3) ibid. p.125-6
(4) ibid. p.102
(5) ibid. p.35