When Mildred Jeffrey needed a rest from union organizing in the South in the 1930s, she went to Highlander Center. In 1955, Rosa Parks attended a Highlander workshop on implementing public school desegregation and received the inspiration and skills to spark the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
When Marion Barry and his fellow organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee wanted to rethink the strategy of the sit-ins in the early 1960s, they went to Highlander. And in 1973, when Betty Jean Hall started to organize women coal miners, she relied on Highlander techniques she had observed growing up in Kentucky.
Jeffrey, Parks, Barry and Hall were united last night in a joyous celebration of the first 50 years of Highlander, an education center in New Market, Tenn., overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains, that has helped define issues of social justice and train the followers of those movements. As the words of "This Little Light of Mine" echoed over the rear deck of Ralph Rinzler's Capitol Hill home, the personal marks left by Highlander vied with the pleas for contributions to its $1 million endowment fund.
Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955 set off a new generation of direct social protest, recalled that "Highlander was like a new experience. There was no division, nothing to make one feel inferior because of race."
Barry said, "There we decided to continue direct action and voter registration. And the 1963 Mississippi voting project grew out of a meeting there. It was a refuge, as they say in the Baptist church, 'a rock and weary land, our shelter in a time of storm.' "
Decades ago, Highlander's emphasis on social change was considered radical and it was labeled as a "communist training school" by southern politicians. On its 25th anniversary, a young Martin Luther King Jr. gave the principal address. A couple of years later, the Tennessee police raided and closed the school and the buildings were burned by night riders. It reopened in 1961.
Rinzler, director of the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival, said that Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young have nominated Highlander for a Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Hubert Sapp, the Highlander director, in explaining its needs, said, "We have never been in danger of closing; our supporters keep us going. It is just as economic conditions get worse, money is less. As those conditions worsen, the more demands there are on what we do.
"We recently participated in a conference on toxic waste," Sapp said. "While it was being organized, people called saying they had a dump in their community, they wanted to know what the regulations were."
Ellen Malcolm, the president of the Windom Fund, which just gave $10,000 to the endowment, said of Highlander: "It is wonderful to find a place that has a history with exciting roots."