Myles was born July 5, 1905, in Savannah, Tennessee. Myles Horton entered Cumberland College in Tennessee in 1924 and almost immediately led a student revolt against the hazing of freshmen by fraternities.
But it was a summer job in 1927, when he was teaching Bible-school classes to poor mountain people in Ozone, Tennessee, for the Presbyterian Church, that led him in his lifelong work: to build a school that would help people learn to transform the impoverished and oppressed conditions of mountain life. In his senior year at Cumberland and after graduation in 1928, he began organizing interracial meetings of the YMCA.
Myles began many years of searching for a plan of action. At the urging of a minister and friend, he attended Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan under the mentorship of Reinhold Niebuhr. His searching took him to the University of Chicago and eventually to the folk-school movement in Denmark before he was ready to return to Tennessee and start his own school.
Myles founded the Highlander Folk School in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee, about 55 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Highlander was a controversial school in the South that for years taught leadership skills to blacks and whites in defiance of segregation laws. Over those years Myles taught thousands of blacks and whites to challenge entrenched social, economic, and political strictures of a segregated society.
He worked closely with labor unions, antipoverty organizations, and civil rights leaders and is often credited with being one of the sparks that ignited the civil rights movement in the United States. Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., former Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Stokeley Carmichael were among those who attended classes or taught at the school.
Myles' first wife, Zilphia Horton, is often credited with joining Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan in writing new lyrics to an old religious folk tune that became the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome."
"We believe that education leads to action," Myles said at the school's fortieth anniversary celebration in 1972. "If you advocate just one action, you're an organizer. We teach leadership here. Then people go out and do what they want."
The Highlander Center also developed a literacy program in the 1950s that taught thousands of blacks to read and write in an effort to get them to register to vote. The Citizenship Schools represent the largest and clearly the most effective mass literacy campaign ever undertaken in the United States—successful largely because the campaign was not about literacy, but about the right to participate in a democratic society.
The school's integrated classes and its theories brought it to the attention of law-enforcement officials. In 1957 Senator James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat who served as chairman of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, investigated Highlander for reported Communist ties. Myles repeatedly denied that he was a Communist or that the school had links with the Communist Party.
But in 1960 the Highlander Folk School was ordered closed by the Tennessee courts on the grounds that it had violated its charter by "permitting integration in its school work," that it had operated for Mr. Horton's personal benefit and that it had sold beer in violation of Tennessee law.
Myles immediately reopened the school and called it the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville. In 1971 the center moved to its current site, a 100-acre, mountainside farm in New Market, Tennessee.
At the school's fiftieth anniversary in 1982, hundreds of former students, including blacks, whites, Mexican-Americans and Native Americans from around the United States came to New Market to pay tribute to Myles—an event celebrated in a feature documentary film, You Gotta Move.
Myles Horton died in January of 1990.
(Text adapted from an obituary in the New York Times, January 1990)
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To learn more about the Highlander Research and Education Center, visit highlandercenter.org.