Pilgrimage to Highlander Folk School


I’ve taken what I’ve thought of as pilgrimages before, tracing the steps of John Brown and Harriet Tubman.

I did those things alone, and they were invaluable experiences. But I didn’t understand that a pilgrimage is meant to be made with other people until I went on a retreat at St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, TN.

Thirty-eight of us were there to learn to make contemplative silence an underpinning for compassionate action in our efforts to dismantle racism. The retreat included a pilgrimage to the original site of the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, TN. Visiting that site was on my bucket list.

The original Highlander is a legendary and hallowed place for students of the Civil Rights movement. I haven’t been such a student for as long as many, but the intensity of my studies brought the names of Myles Horton, Septima Clark, and Ella Baker to my attention, along with the more famous names of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks.


MLK Jr., Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy talk to Zilpha Horton.

John Lewis learned about the Highlander School from  Nashville guru James Lawson, who had been teaching the Fisk SNCC students about nonviolence and civil disobedience in the basement of the Clark Methodist Church. Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel signed up for a retreat at Highlander as soon they heard of it.

Horton, a native Tennessean, founded Highlander in 1932 after traveling in Scandinavia and learning about the folk schools there. On some 300 peaceful acres along a river, he began organizing coal miners and other workers during the Great Depression. It was a natural step to become a center for young activists, black and white, to learn more about radical nonviolence and for leaders of the civil rights movement to gain refreshment and renewal.

Septima Clark’s specialty was teaching literacy to poor blacks, sharecroppers, so they could begin the route toward registering to vote. John Lewis gives her great credit in his first memoir, Walking with the Wind, and he also credits the white Myles Horton with being able to tame the fiery James Bevel, who thought the “nonviolent revolution . . . was hogwash.”

Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander, took the old spiritual “I’ll Overcome Someday” and turned into the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” made famous by another Highlander visitor, Pete Seeger.


The original sheet music for “We Shall Overcome”

Because blacks and white mixed freely at the school, studying together, eating together, cleaning up together, living in dormitories together, that the Highlander and Horton came to be seen as a Communist enterprise. Horton was continually harassed by police, citizens’ groups, and eventually J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The state eventually did close down the school. Today the original library resides in New Market TN, and the former library and grounds have been purchased by the Tennessee Preservation Trust while a concerted effort moves forward to restore the building.

On a warm sunny day in May, my fellow retreatants and I IMG_20180501_103211310piled into vans and cars and made the half-hour drive to the Highlander property. We were greeted by Joe, the property caretaker, who was the epitome of a hard-working man, straight and true, skin bronzed by the outdoors with blue eyes and the warmest smile you can imagine. We all fanned out, going through the small building, walking down to the riverside, taking blankets to spread out on the lawn and breathe in the air. My first sensation was that of awe that I was breathing the same molecules of air as all the long dead and aging living on whose shoulders the likes of Bryan Stevenson and William Barber stand.

Finally, we gathered in semicircles of chairs in front of the building. We chanted, we meditated, we prayed for this hallowed place and prayed for the strengthening of will and commitment to do our part in bringing Dr. King’s dream finally to fruition.

This was a pilgrimage.



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