Tennessee Halted in School Inquiry

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Tennessee Halted in School Inquiry

Newspaper article

By: The New York Times

Date: January 15, 1968

Source: "Court Enjoins Legislature on Highlander Study." The New York Times, January 15, 1968.

About the Author: The New York Times is an American daily newspaper that was first published in 1851, with a circulation of over one million copies.


In 1968, the Highlander Research and Education Center and its predecessor institution had been in operation for more than thirty-five years when Highlander advanced a legal challenge to a renewed attempt by the state legislature of Tennessee to disrupt its operations. The Highlander facility was founded in Tennessee in 1932 by Myles Horton (1905–1990) as the Highland Folk School, a training center for labor organizers and other social and community activists.

Horton had established Highlander in furtherance of his belief that to truly advance the prospects of the poor people of the southern states, both black and white, ordinary people must have access to education. The Highland methods of delivering educational programming were controversial from the time of the school's inception. Highlander did not grant diplomas or degrees for the successful completion of its courses. Instead, the Highlander programs were primarily modeled on the concept of educational workshops, where the accumulation of knowledge was a collective experience between instructors and students.

By the late 1930s, the Highlander Folk School was active in the training of labor leaders working with the newly established Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). At that time, the CIO was endeavoring to organize large segments of the textiles and clothing industries; a nonviolent demonstration technique developed through the relationship between the CIO and the Highlander school during this period was the sit down strike.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), wife of U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, was a strong supporter of the Highland Folk School until her death, an affiliation that was one of many that caused her to be characterized as a 'Red' and a communist sympathizer in American conservative political circles.

The Highlander School became a catalyst to other elements of social activism in the 1950s. Horton was a strong proponent of the aims of the desegregation movements in southern public schools and a number of these activists received both training and support at Highland. In 1957, Highland teachers established a series of programs that became popularly known as the Citizenship Schools. In these programs, uneducated blacks were provided with language and writing instruction to assist them in passing the literacy tests that were a prerequisite to voter registration in southern states such as North and South Carolina. The literacy tests had presented a significant bar to black voter registration in these states.

The Highlander School attracted bitter opposition to both its programs and its very existence from the state establishment in Tennessee. Highlander was depicted in conservative circles as a communist training school and generally un-American in its outlook. The state commenced legal action against Highlander in 1959 to revoke its school charter; after a lengthy legal contest, the state was successful in both closing the school and in securing a forfeiture of the school property. Myles Horton re-established the school as the Highland Research and Education Center in 1962 under a new state charter.

The new Highlander facility continued to operate in much the same fashion as the original school. With the growth of the civil rights movement throughout the South in the years following 1963, Highlander played an important role in the education of many social activists. The backlash against the segregation of institutions such as the University of Alabama in 1963 was directed by some white political forces in Tennessee into a renewed effort to close Highlander in 1967. This action resulted in the Tennessee state legislature resolution to investigate the school for subversive activities.


Court Enjoins Legislature on Highlander Study

Special to The New York Times

Nashville, Jan 15— A Federal court has ordered the Tennessee Legislature to drop a proposed investigating of "subversive" activities at the Highlander Educational and Research Center.

The court said that legislatures had undisputed authority to investigate, but that the resolution ordering the Highlander study was "void on its face for vagueness and over-breadth."

The ruling was handed down here Thursday by District Judge William E. Miller. Copies of the order were made available today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Highlander center and its forerunner, the Highlander folk School, have been in a running battle with Tennessee authorities for 30 years. Critics have linked the institutions with communism and integration.

The folk school was established in 1934 and was initially active in training labor organizers. After World War II, it began promoting the advance of Southern Negroes. The school had many supporters, including Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1959, the Legislature investigated the school, then located at Monteagle, Tenn. Subsequently, the Legislature ordered local authorities to move for an evocation of the school's charter. That action was successful.

In 1961, the Highlander center was established at Knoxville, Tenn., under a new charter. Myles Horton, who had headed the folk school, became president of the new institution. The civil rights activities were continued.

Last year, the Legislature established a joint committee to investigate a second time and to determine if the center was engaged in "activities subversive of the government of the state."

"While admittedly the states have a legitimate concern in this area," Judge Miller said, "such investigations are fraught with constitutional dangers."

"The term 'subversion' is capable of multiple meanings," he said, adding:

"Without exception the term connotes unpopular words or deeds. Too often, 'subversion' takes on the meaning of any activity which is not in tune with prevailing social, political, economic, or religious values of the community."

Legal authorities believed it was the first time a Federal court had enjoined a state legislative investigation. The ruling is also important, they said, because it touches on first Amendment issues that have been raised elsewhere.

Judge Miller found the proposed investigation a "threat to protected liberties" on two grounds.

He said that the Highlander center could not determine what information the committee would seek and that the resolution did not provide the "requisite guidance …to insure that the inquiry is within constitutional boundaries."

The Federal injunction was obtained by a group of lawyers led by Charles Morgan Jr., the Civil Liberties Union counsel in Atlanta, and by I.T. Creswell Jr., Reber F. Boult Jr., Whitworth Stokes Jr., and George E. Barrett, all of Nashville.


The attempt by the Tennessee legislature to investigate the alleged subversion practiced at the Highlander school and the subsequent grant of a federal injunction to prevent the state investigation in January 1968 is an episode in the larger civil rights movement in the United States that is significant from legal, political and social perspectives.

In the traditional distribution of constitutional powers between the courts and the state, legislatures enact laws and the investigative agencies of the state, typically sworn law enforcement personnel, further the objects of the legislation in a manner consistent with the scope of the law. The power of a court to review a particular legislative enactment as being within the state's constitutional power is traditionally available after the statute in question has been passed. The inherent judicial power to review any actions taken by an investigative agency may be invoked to quash a search warrant or to suppress the introduction into evidence in any subsequent proceeding the product of an unlawful search.

The order of the Federal Court to enjoin the Tennessee legislature from acting upon a resolution is unique in American jurisprudence, as the injunction remedy issued in favor of the Highlander school was something of a hybrid of the two traditional injunctive powers of the court. At the time of the issuance of the federal injunction, no investigation had yet been initiated and no evidence had been gathered by an official agency—the resolution of the state legislature could be characterized as a declaration of intent to take a future investigative action. The decision of the Federal Court, in its finding that the legislative resolution was too broadly worded, is akin to the judicial branch of government telling the elected legislators of Tennessee that they are limited in what they may consider for legislative action.

In considering the true intent in the Tennessee resolution to investigate Highlander, it is clear that the initiative was a part of the backlash against the entire civil rights movement that had resulted in significant gains by the black community of the South. For the conservative aspects of Tennessee society and elsewhere in the South, Highlander school represented an ongoing subversive influence in society, particularly in labor relations and in the effort to empower black citizens through voter registration.

The decision of the Tennessee legislature to mount a second attack in less than ten years upon the existence of the Highlander school is as remarkable as the grant of the injunction in Federal court. While Highlander was unquestionably a bastion of left-wing political sympathies, it was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King (1929–1968). Having re-established itself after the first battle with the state in 1961, it seems that the 1967 resolution against Highland was doomed to failure.

The efforts of the Highlander school to promote its Citizenship programs to extend the literacy of black persons in the Carolinas in the late 1950s had contributed to the abolition of literacy testing in the voter registration process mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By 1968, demographic shifts attributable to a greater number of black persons being registered and voting were beginning to be observed in many states, including Tennessee.

The injunction granted in the federal Court was never appealed by the state of Tennessee, and the decision remains a startling precedent as to the breadth of the judicial powers claimed against a state legislature. The actions of the state and the grant of the injunction provided both Highlander and the causes with which it was identified significant favorable publicity. Highlander became a key player in the social activism known as the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. In subsequent years, programs assisting in the alleviation of poverty in the Appalachian region became a training focus at the Highlander center. The school ran a number of ongoing workshops and other long-term initiatives to publicize the economic and environmental problems caused to the people of Appalachia through strip mining in the coal fields and related occupational health and safety issues. Highlander also provided ongoing support to community groups throughout the Appalachian region to provide better community medical education.

In recent years, Highlander has expanded its educational activism to embrace global issues, particularly those related to the environment and immigration. Since 1967, the Highlander facility has prospered as a provider of education and training on a wide array of social issues.



Glen, John. Highlander: No Ordinary School. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.

Horton, Aimee Isgrig. The Highlander Folk School, 1932–1961. Toronto: Catalyst Centre, 2002.

Horton, Myles, and Dale Jacobs, ed. Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.


Levine, Daniel P. "The Birth of Citizenship Schools: Entwining the Struggles for Literacy and Freedom." The History of Education Quarterly 44, 3, (2004): 388–414.

Web sites

PBS. "The American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt." 1999 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eleanor/sfeature/fbi_rp_01.html> (accessed June 25, 2006).

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Tennessee Halted in School Inquiry

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