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Myles Horton (1905–1990)

Activist and founder of the Highlander Folk School, Myles Falls Horton was born in a log cabin near Savannah, Tennessee, on July 9, 1905. His parents, Elsie Falls Horton and Perry Horton, had both been school teachers before Horton's birth, but had lost their jobs when the requirements for teachers were increased to include one year of high school, which neither had. After that, his parents supported their family (Horton was firstborn, followed by brothers Delmas and Daniel, and sister Elsie Pearl) by working in factories, as sharecroppers, and taking other jobs when they could find them. In his autobiography, Horton wrote, "We didn't think of ourselves as working-class, or poor, we just thought of ourselves as being conventional people who didn't have any money" (1990a, p. 1).

The Horton family was socially active; his mother shared scarce family resources with and organized classes for less well-off and often illiterate neighbors, and his father was a member of the Worker's Alliance, the union of the Worker's Progress Administration (WPA). "From my mother and father," Horton wrote, "I learned the idea of service and the value of education. They taught me by their actions that you are supposed to serve your fellow men, you're supposed to do something worthwhile with your life, and education is meant to help you do something for others" (1990a, p. 2).

Horton left home at fifteen to attend high school–his hometown had no secondary school–and he supported himself there by working first in a saw mill and then a box factory, where he said he learned about organizing and the strength of collective action. "When I heard people insulted by the factory owners, it hurt me personally," he wrote in his autobiography. "I guess I got as much help from the opposition in firming up my beliefs as I did from more positive sources" (1990a, p. 8). Later, with coworkers at a crate-building job, he formed a union that held a successful work slowdown for a wage increase.

Horton read widely, and was deeply influenced by the writings of social critics and Marxists. He felt he could learn from many sources, but that in the end he was responsible to himself and his own ideals. "I have to be the final arbiter of my beliefs and my actions," he said, "and I can't fall back and justify it by saying, I'm a Marxist, I'm a Christian, I'm a technological expert, I'm an educator" (1990a, p.45). He worked with a wide range of people who shared a broad vision of a better world, but he remained a stubborn individualist who never joined a party. "I understood the need for organizations, but I was always afraid of what they did to people" (1990a, p. 49).

He attended Cumberland University, the University of Chicago, and the Union Theological Seminary, and sought out teachers who in many cases became lifelong supporters and friends; among these were Reinhold Neibuhr, John Dewey, Jane Addams, and George Counts. As a student in Chicago he heard about the Danish Folk School movement, a populist education experiment that had developed in opposition to the lifelessness of traditional schools and the detachment of academic schooling in Denmark. Danish Folk Schools encouraged students to broaden their experience by analyzing important questions and problems, and then actively participating in practical solutions. Horton resolved to go and see these schools himself.

In Denmark, Horton focused on a specific project: creating a school for life–a place where students and teachers could live together to pose and solve problems; an informal setting where experience could be the main teacher; a site for activists, organizers, and teachers for social justice. In his diary, Horton wrote, "The school will be for young men and women of the mountains and workers from the factories. Negroes would be among the students who will live in close personal contact with teachers. Out of their experiential learning through living, working, and studying together could come an understanding of how to take their place intelligently in the changing world" (1990a, p. 54). He worried that preparation to build his school might take forever, and although he felt inadequate to the task; he decided that the only way he could learn to embody his vision was to simply begin his project.

Horton opened the school, the Southern Mountains School, in 1932. A short time later, he and codirector Don West changed the name to the Highlander Folk School. At Highlander the purpose of education was to make people more powerful, and more capable in their work and their lives. Horton had what he called a "two-eye" approach to teaching: with one eye he tried to look at people as they were, while with the other he looked at what they might become. "My job as a gardener or educator is to know that the potential is there and that it will unfold. People have a potential for growth; it's inside, it's in the seed" (1990a, p. 33).

The school was a free space in an oppressive atmosphere–a place where labor organizers, civil rights activists, antipoverty workers, and others assembled to develop solutions. Through the 1930s Highlander was the education arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the South. Horton realized that labor would never be emancipated as long as racial segregation–turning workers against each other based on race privilege–remained intact, and he began organizing workshops designed to destroy racist social structures.

For many years Highlander was the only place in the South where white and African-American citizens lived and worked together, something that was illegal in that strictly segregated society. Highlander, Horton once claimed, held the record for sustained civil disobedience, breaking the Tennessee Jim Crow laws every day for over forty years, until the segregation laws were finally repealed.

The list of students at Highlander is a roll call of social activists: Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Fanny Lou Hamer. People from the surrounding community used the school as well; all gathered there to give voice to the obstacles to their hopes and dreams, gather the conceptual, human, and material resources needed to continue, and to return home with a plan for forward progress. The school was under constant attack from white supremacists, antilabor groups, and the government.

Myles Horton died on January 19, 1990; his school, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, continues to be a catalyst for social change in the early twenty-first century.


BLEDSOE, THOMAS. 1969. Or We'll All Hang Separately: The Highlander Idea. Boston: Beacon Press.

GLEN, JOHN. 1988. Highlander: No Ordinary School 1932–1962. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

HORTON, AIMEE. 1989. The Highlander Folk School: A History of Its Major Programs. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.

HORTON, MYLES. 1990a. The Long Haul: An Autobiography, with Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl. New York: Doubleday Press.

HORTON, MYLES. 1990b. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, ed. Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.



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