Highlander’s Founder; Myles Horton

Excerpts from an adapted obituary, New York Times January 1990

Myles Horton was born in 1905, in Savannah, Tennessee. He entered Cumberland College in Tennessee in 1924 and almost immediately led a student revolt against the hazing of freshmen by fraternities.

But it was a summer job in 1927, when he was teaching Bible school classes to poor mountain people in Ozone, Tennessee, for the Presbyterian Church, that led him in his lifelong work: to build a school that would help people learn to transform the empoverished and oppressed conditions of mountain life.

Myles began many years of searching for a plan of action. At the urging of a minister and friend, he attended Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan under the mentorship of Reinhold Niebuhr. His searching took him to the University of Chicago and eventually to the folk school movement in Denmark before he was ready to return to Tennessee and start his own school.

Myles founded the Highlander Folk School in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee, about 55 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Highlander was a controversial school in the South that for years taught leadership skills to blacks and whites in defiance of segregation laws. Over those years Myles taught thousands of blacks and whites to challenge entrenched social, economic and political strictures of a segregated society.

He worked closely with labor unions, antipoverty organizations and civil rights leaders and is often credited with being one of the sparks that ignited the civil rights movement in the United States. Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., former Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta, Fanny Lou Hamer and Stokeley Carmichael were among those who attended classes or taught at the school.

Myles’ first wife, Zilphia Horton, is often credited with joining Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan in writing new lyrics to an old religious folk tune that became the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

The school’s integrated classes and its theories brought it to the attention of law-enforcement officials. In 1957 Senator James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat who served as chairman of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee, investigated Highlander for reported Communist ties. Myles repeatedly denied that he was a Communist or that the school had links with the Communist Party.

I have seen many articles stating that Horton was a Communist Party member. “The Highlander Folk School was a Communist front, having been founded by Myles Horton (Communist Party organizer for Tennessee) and Don West (Communist Party organizer for North Carolina).”


West was a well documented Communist Party member. He had also studied the Folk School movement in Denmark but stayed at Highlander only a year.

More credible is the testimony of a witness before SISS in 1954. Paul Crouch a former Tennessee organiser for the Communist Party testified that he had solicited Horton to join the Party:

“At that meeting after we discussed the [Highlander Folk] school I asked Mr Horton to become a formal member of the Communist Party and his reply was, as near as I can recall his words, “I’m doing you just as much good now as I would if I were a member of the Communist Party. I am often asked if I am a Communist Party member and I always say no. I feel much safer in having no fear that evidence might be uncovered to link me with the Communist Party, and therefore I prefer not to become a member of the Communist Party.”

Paul Crouch, also described in his testimony the uses of the Highlander Folk School for the Party as they were developed in a conference that included himself, Horton, and and another Communist party member affiliated to the school, James Dombrowski:

The purpose of the conference was to work out a plan by which the Daily Worker would be purchased by the school. They would be made accessible to the students, that everywhere possible the instructors should refer to the Daily Worker, to news that had come in it, to encourage the students to read it, and it was agreed that the Communist Party should have a student, a leader, sent there as a student whose job it would be to look around for prospective recruits and Mildred White, now in Washington, D.C., was selected to attend the Highlander Folk School for the purpose of recruiting for the Communist Party and carrying the Communist Party line among the student body there.
MR. ARENS [Special Counsel to the Subcommittee]: You said it was agreed? Who agreed?

MR. CROUCH: Mr. Horton and Mr. Dombrowski.

Myles Horton died in January 1990.

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3 thoughts on “Highlander’s Founder; Myles Horton

  1. sounds like a great guy,

    “that for years taught leadership skills to blacks and whites in defiance of segregation laws. Over those years Myles taught thousands of blacks and whites to challenge entrenched social, economic and political strictures of a segregated society.”

    The guy sounds like he is helping empower the opressed, who cares what political party he is or isnt a part of 🙂

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