But I Repeat Myself

The passing of John Lewis and a recent tweet once again brought to mind The Highlander Folk School which began in Grundy County, midway between Monteagle and Tracy City. I’ve written before how it struck me as unlikely epicenter of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I’ve not always been what you call a student of history and I’m not sure I’d qualify as one now, but you wouldn’t think that a requirement to know that less that a mile from where you lived there was a place that helped instruct the likes of Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the ways of non-violent protest. I had no idea until I read Parting The Waters.

John Lewis had this to say about Highlander:

“I was a young adult, but I had never eaten a meal in the company of Black and white diners,” the congressman wrote. “Highlander was the place,” he continued, “that Rosa Parks witnessed a demonstration of equality that helped inspire her to keep her seat on a Montgomery bus, just a few weeks after her first visit. She saw Septima Clark, a legendary black educator, teaching side-by-side with (Highlander founder Myles) Horton. For her it was revolutionary. She had never seen an integrated team of equals working together, and it inspired her.”

But what happened to Highlander? Well from the Tennessee Encyclopedia:

As Highlander became more prominent in the struggle for racial justice, outraged southern white segregationists launched a sustained assault against what they described as a “Communist training school.” … Following a headline-grabbing investigation by state legislators, a police raid, and two dramatic trials, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated its property in 1962.

It had been awhile since McCarthy was smacked down after being asked “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” but the Red Scare was still alive and an easy enough dog whistle to blow to help bring down a place on such a radical mission as advocating for equal rights.

They say that history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. Today the bogeyman isn’t communism but radical socialism. Whatever that is. I’m sure most that toss that label around pay little attention to what it really means. Doesn’t really matter. It’s just a thing that you can say like you don’t want a socialist hellscape do you!? And people are like oh God no not that! Never mind the fact that Social Security and Medicare are socialist programs that seem to be quite popular (if you are adamantly opposed to Social Security by all means send your checks to me). Then, especially here locally, we have the Tennessee Valley Authority which electrified rural areas, provided flood control, oh and created a lot of jobs. And the interstate highway system championed by that well known commie Dwight D. Eisenhower. I could go on, but the point is we’re already quite socialist.

Despite this, those trying to bend the long arc of the moral universe towards justice are labeled as “radical socialists” or enemies of “law and order”. Those that see clearly know what’s these labels really mean just as they did years ago when Highlander was labeled a communist training ground. I keep hoping another Joseph Welch will appear to snap people out of this trance. In the meantime I have to be content in the belief that history will eventually look back favorably on those more interested in advancing humanity than whatever this is masquerading as law and order.