Highlander Citizenship School

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Highlander Citizenship School

Myles Horton, the cofounder of the Highlander Folk School, described it as a place where "people can share their experience and learn from each other." This precursor of the Highlander Citizenship School, founded in Grundy County, Tennessee, in 1932 to serve industrial and rural workers in southern Appalachia, quickly became a regional center for worker education and labor organization. The racial dissension in the labor movement soon persuaded Highlander officials that racism was the primary obstacle to securing economic justice in the South. Uniquely situated to respond to racial developments in the 1950s, and anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Highlander began to focus on desegregating public schools. A series of workshops initiated in 1953 trained an interracial group of civic, labor, and church groups to lead the transition. Out of these workshops was born the Highlander Citizenship School.

Bernice Robinson and Septima Poinsette Clark, the coordinators of the Citizenship Schools, developed their curricula around the lived experiences and specific needs of the students in the communities from which they came. The Citizenship Schools provided instruction in areas ranging from adult literacy to voter registration, local voting requirements, political parties, social security, taxes, the functions of local school boards, and a host of other immediately relevant issues.

Citizenship Schools sprang up throughout the South. Among the hundreds who attended them were Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Dorothy Cotton, Ruby Doris Smith, and Diane Bevel Nash, all of whom became active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In May 1961 Tennessee state officials, who for years had harassed Highlander, succeeded in revoking the school's charter and confiscating its property following a ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Highlander transferred its programs to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, under the direction of Clark and Robinson, continued to thrive. It was later reincorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center, now located in New Market, Tennessee.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Baker, Ella J.; Clark, Septima; Education in the United States; Labor and Labor Unions; Nash, Diane; Parks, Rosa; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)


Glen, John M. Highlander: No Ordinary School, 19321962. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Langston, Donna. "The Women of Highlander." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 19411965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford et al., pp. 145168. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.

christine a. lunardini (1996)