Myles Horton: “The Long Haul: An Autobiography”

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I first encountered Myles Horton and his amazing work and teaching the first time I went to the Highlander Research and Education Center. Brand new to Appalachian Studies – and totally ignorant of most of the radical history of the region – I thought that Highlander was a folk school, that it taught arts and crafts. I was traveling with my friend Rolf Samuels, and I can remember getting to the tiny stop in the road called New Market, Tennessee. I thought we’d see signs to the school, but there was absolutely no evidence that it existed. We stopped at a gas station to ask for directions, but no one there had ever heard of a folk school in the area. Finally, either one of the men realized what we meant and gave us directions or we called Highlander and got directions, but somehow we found our way up a winding road to the modest sign for Highlander.

Candie Carawan met us and gave us a tour. Again, I was so unaware of social justice history that I had no idea she and her husband, Guy Carawan, had been the ones to popularize “We Shall Overcome” as a Civil Rights anthem. Nor did I know that Rosa Parks had gotten her activist training at Highlander or that, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was accused of studying at a communist training school, it was Highlander to which his accusers were referring.

For Highlander is not a folk arts school after all. It is a folk school, in the Danish sense – a school where the “folk” teach other and themselves. And folk have been doing that since Myles Horton (1905-1990) started Highlander in 1932 as a place for labor unions to organize. Initially committed to the cause of the labor movement, Highlander eventually became one of the centers of the Civil Rights Movement. And in recent years, it has worked for environmental and social justice throughout the world.

The story Candie told as we walked from building to building took my breath away: how a young white man – Myles Horton – radicalized by his studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, had a vision to create a place where ordinary people could come together, share their experiences, learn from each other, and organize. Key to the Highlander method is cultural sharing: lots of music has rung out over the Tennessee hills. And the symbol of Highlander really got me: a rocking chair. For when activists gather at Highlander, they sit in rocking chairs in a circle, no one person higher in the pecking order than any other, and they talk and sing and rock.

But the highlight of that visit – as so many visits after – was seeing Myles Horton’s house at the top of the hill. Horton’s house has a wide, expansive view – but I was equally taken with the interior of the house. Horton, it appeared, had collected folk art from all over the world, particularly Africa, and I was fascinated by a man who had reveled in so many cultures. By the time I went there in 1995, Myles had been gone for years, but his spirit still lived on in his home.

Fast forward one year to 1996. I was taking a professional development class at Berea College. Taught by Helen Matthews Lewis, the three-week intensive course was for teachers and professors who wanted to understand and then teach the multicultural heritage of Appalachia. This class was utterly transformative for me – it opened my eyes to so much, not just to content but to an entirely different way of teaching.

Part of our class was a ten-day field trip through Appalachia – through eastern Kentucky, over to Cherokee, North Carolina, and back through eastern Tennessee. As we were crossing through the Great Smoky Mountains (where I had worked as a cook at LeConte Lodge eight years earlier), Helen asked if anyone would mind if we took a detour to Highlander. By this point, I knew that Helen lived most of the time at Highlander and that she had, in fact, been the acting director for two years after Horton’s retirement. Of course, all of us who were in the van said we’d love to go to Highlander.

Imagine my stunned surprise when Helen pulled the van up to Myles Horton’s house, which I immediately recognized from my visit the year before. “Why are we at Horton’s house?” I asked. “I live here now,” Helen said. It turned out that all the folk art in the house had been collected by Helen, not Horton.

After that first visit with Helen, I went back to spend time with her there on at least two occasions – and to learn more about Myles Horton and his legacy. Helen gave me a video of Bill Moyers’s two-hour interview with Myles Horton. Titled “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly,” it brings to life many of the stories he tells in his 1990 book, The Long Haul: An Autobiography. The Moyers interview is powerful and compelling – and watching it in Horton’s house was made even sweeter when I realized it had been filmed on one of the house’s porches.

So what is all this about Myles Horton? Who was he, and why does he matter? He was a poor white boy from Savannah, Tennessee, who had the opportunity to go to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he studied with such luminaries as Reinhold Niebuhr. It is safe to say that Horton was radicalized at this seminary.

Horton came back to Appalachia determined to make a difference – and oh, what a difference he made! He began as a labor union organizer. In fact, my favorite story from The Long Haul is about the night a group of killers hired by a mill owner came to his Lumberton, North Carolina, hotel room intending to shoot Horton. In his inimitable way, Horton “organized” the killers and convinced them to go away.

Ultimately, Horton’s most important work came through his co-founding of Highlander, an activist leadership school. First located in Monteagle, Tennessee, the school was eventually shut down by the state of Tennessee. It reopened in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then moved to its current location in New Market, outside of Knoxville. Starting with a focus on labor organizing, the school then moved on to supporting the Civil Rights Movement. An excellent history is available at Highlander’s website.

Horton’s autobiography – The Long Haul – is a great starting point for learning about his life and work. It’s an easy-to-read, accessible book, embodying the approachable spirit of Horton and his work at Highlander. After all, it’s all about sitting in a circle of rocking chairs, telling stories of our lives, playing and singing our music.

Another fantastic way to learn about Myles Horton is to watch “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly.” Nobody conducts an interview like Bill Moyers, and Myles Horton – progressive activist and teacher – was tailor-made for the equally progressive Moyers. Their 1981 conversation is rich, engaging, thoughtful. You can watch the entire interview on YouTube – or buy the DVD to have for your own collection.

If you want to dig a little deeper into Horton’s work, political theory, and liberation pedagogy, you should definitely check out We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, a series of conversations between Horton and the great Brazilian teacher and thinker Paulo Freire.

Watch:Bill Moyers’s two-hour 1981 interview with Myles Horton – titled “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly” – is worth watching in its entirety. But if you want to get just a taste of the interview and Horton’s organizing and storytelling, check out a 7-minute clip (start at 50:00 and continue to 57:18). In this clip, Horton recounts the story of mill owners hiring a group of men to kill him when he was in Lumberton, North Carolina, supporting a textile workers’ strike. You can read the same story in Chapter Ten from The Long Haul.