They're paying tribute to the Highland Research and Education Center tonight, but Myles Horton won't be there.

Horton, who founded the center 48 years ago to educate southern workers in the techniques of social change, will be, instead, conducting a seminar on community health leadership in the eaastern Tennessee mountain area.

"They don't need me there," said the 74-year-old social activist of tonight's benefit folk concert at People's Congregational Church. "At Highlander we always try to teach people to do things on their own. That's the only way you're going to involve ordinary people."

In its close to half-century of operations, Highlander has always aimed at "ordinary people." First called the Southern Mountain School, it has been a training ground for union leaders, a school for civil rights workers and a workshop on energy, environmental and land ownership issues. Back in the 1950s, its critics branded it as a communist front because of its socialist philosophy and interracial gatherings, as the center's workshops helped shape the thinking of grassroots civil rights workers.

Rosa Parks attended sessions there before her refusal to give up her seat set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

When they were SNCC workers, John Lewis, a founder of SNCC, and Marion Barry spent time there. So did thousands of anonymous textile workers, miners, bugwood cutters and furniture workers.

"We Shall Overcome," orginally a black church hymn, went to Highlander with striking food and tobacco workers in 1945 and emerged several years later as the civil rights anthem.

In recent years, Highlander has turned its main focus away from labor and civil rights problems to programs of residential education for community leaders in rural Appalachia and the Deep South.

"We're working with people from the bottom," said Horton, "and trying to give them some strategy for dealing with their problems."

In the last year, Highlander has helped organize forums on envronmental health in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia; developed environmental health publications and research in eastern Tennessee and held meetings for nuclear workers.

"We want people to have access to information," Horton explained. "We made a land survey of six Appalachian states recently and found that in some cases 80 to 90 percent of the land was owned by absentee owners.

"We talk to shop stewards about what they can do to change labor conditions.

We're concerned about people living on old chemical dumps."

Recently, Highlander has been trying to reach what Horton calls "ex-white collar workers" -- teachers, hospital workers, secretarial and clerical workers, communications and commercial employes and welfare workers.

"Most of these people don't realize they're working people," he said, smiling. "They still have middle-class values but not the money to go with them. Our work has not gone well with these people."

Though Highlander's budget is tiny for the work it does, the center is facing financial problems. In the last five or six years, it's had to ask for more private donations because of declining foundation support.

The center's 15-member staff lives on subsistence pay, the amount depending on family size. Many raise cattle and vegetables on Highlander's 100-acre rustic site, which looks out over the Great Smoky Mountains about 25 miles outside Knoxville.

"I took some asparagus from my garden to a friend's house for dinner the other night," Horton said.

It wasn't easy starting the place either. After graduate work at Union Theological Seminary under the tutelage of Reinhold Neibuhr, Horton went to Denmark to observe and work in folk centers.

He brought his ideas back to the United States and set up a center at Mounteage, Tenn., between Nashville and Chattanooga. Horton and his late wife, Zilphia, first lived in a one-room log cabin they built. But after their two children came, they found it necessary to move into larger quarters with running water and a telephone.

In the late 1950s, segregationists cited a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. with center officials as proof that the civil rights movement was directed by Communists.

In 1961, the state of Tennessee confiscated Highlander's property after center officials were convicted of illegally selling intoxicating beverages, operating a school in violation of Tennessee's segregation laws and operating a school for personal gain. The property was sold at public auction.

Undaunted, Horton started another center in the present location.

"If you're outside the limits of respectability in the U.S.," he said, "you can't get justice. But we try to teach people they can have something to say about their lives.

"People identify unionism with a structure, not the idea of people getting together to improve themselves. You've got to go beyond people's capacity to think about goals. You've got to think about the future -- and deal with the tension between what is and what ought to be.'"