Day 1: Nashville + Highlander
We started our journey at the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville public library. Freedom Riders Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Dr. Rip Patton met us. We gathered around a statue of the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Reavis Mitchell, the chair of the history department at Fisk, says Du Bois would’ve admired our group. It fit his notion of the new society he was advocating for over a hundred years ago, multiracial, multi-ethnic. Fisk itself is still a living symbol of that vision, tattered a bit around the edges but still strong, still educating African American men and women as it has been for more than a century and a half.
From Nashville we traveled east on the bus for three hours to Highlander Center outside Chattanooga. Highlander Research and Education Center was founded in 1932, helping organize woodcutters and coal miners. For over 80 years it has been an incubator for organizing around progressive issues.
Highlander inspired Yobel Mengistu to think of his fathers courage in the pursuit of freedom in his home country of Eritrea. “My father was a fighter, he believed that fighting for what you believe in and dying, was better than sitting by and having your rights taken away from you. Through him is why I fight, and at the Highlander Folk School fighting and believing was all they had. When we won the war for independence, there was a parade and everyone was throwing popcorn to celebrate. In the Civil Rights movement they believed in hope, optimism and never wavering. They sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ so they can one day say ‘We Did Overcome.’ Then when its all said and done, they can throw the popcorn and look back and be thankful for fighting.”
Highlander Center resonated with Mary-Ellen Buchanan because of her own labor background. “My brother was 15 years older than me. He was a union organizer in the south, working for the Lady Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers. This is the same union as former Highlander board member Reverend James Orange had worked for when he organized workers at JP Stevens. My brother told frightening stories about such organizing.”
Kathryn Grubbs delved into Highlander’s history. “The most important things to me about Highlander are their commitment to integration from Day 1 that focused on living it rather than just talking about it and their focus on popular education as the best way to help people in struggle. As a white woman working for racial justice, I look to Zilphia Horton and Anne Braden as my role models.”
Zilphia Horton used music and art to galvanize activists. She transformed “We Shall Overcome,” into the civil rights anthem.
Anne Braden was a Kentucky born journalist, organizer, and educator. She was a committed white ally of the civil rights movement.
Felicia Ishino was attracted to the work of Septima Poinsette Clark. She is known as the “grandmother of the civil rights movement.” At Highlander, the educator developed Citizenship Schools, where adults were taught literacy and civics in order to pass the tests Southern states put in place to impede their vote.
Throughout her time in the movement, Clark had to contend not just with the racism of the white establishment but the sexism of the male leaders of the movement like Dr. King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
We were grateful to acknowledge the work done by all the leaders of the civil rights movement. Their work continues. So does our connection. Already one student has interned at Highlander.
Highlander is a beautiful place. We sang “We Shall Overcome” as the full moon rose over the Blue Ridge Mountains.