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"Civil Rights: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. & Myles Horton in Tennessee."

Updated on September 24, 2008

Çivil Rghts in Aided in Tennessee

"Civil Rights: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. & Myles Horton in Tennessee."

By Franklin and Betty J. Parker,

May 17, 2008, marked the 54th year since passage of the Brown v. Board of Education, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared separate white and black schools unequal and unconstitutional. In Brown's wake came the rising crescendo of the civil rights movement.

It is interesting to connect this early movement for racial justice with Tennessee where the authors live.

In 1955, after a long day of hard work Rosa Parks boarded a nearly empty Montgomery, AL, bus which quickly filled. She refused to move to the back of the bus, was arrested, jailed, and fined.

Rosa Parks belonged to the Montgomery Baptist Church whose new pastor was 26-year-old Atlanta-born Boston University-educated Martin Luther King, Jr. The Rev. King agreed with the previous pastor's and congregation's earlier decision to speak truth to power should a racial incident occur. Deciding to boycott the city buses, they held out for a full year. Foot-weary but soon aided by black and sympathetic white carpools, they finally won.

What ties Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to middle Tennessee is Myles Horton's Highlander Adult Education Center. Well before Brown v. Board of Education Highlander, the only place in Tennessee where the races could discuss common problems, began at Monteagle, Grundy County, TN (1932-61). It was briefly closed by powerful white supremacy forces but reappeared in Knoxville (1961-71) and still continues at New Market near Knoxville. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and many other civil rights leaders at Highlander seminars learned peaceful protest techniques and ways to organize citizenship schools for voting rights.

Rosa Parks said that she first learned at Highlander to trust whites, that without Highlander experience she would not have had the courage to challenge Montgomery bus segregation.

Born in west Tennessee and a graduate of old Cumberland University, young Myles Horton organized vacation Bible schools for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in which he was raised. At Ozone, TN, he first got parents of his Bible school children to talk about their problems. He shared his dream of an adult education center with Crossville, TN's Congregational pastor, the Rev. Abram Nightingale, who encouraged Horton to study the social gospel at New York's Union Theological Seminary. Further study at the University of Chicago and a visit to Denmark's adult folk schools led Horton to found Highlander.

With a tiny staff, he trained coal mine union leaders (recall the 1930s Wilder, TN, and other mine strikes?), then trained textile worker union members (recall the Norma Rae film with Sally Field?), and then trained black citizenship school teachers to help unschooled African Americans to read and write and so qualify to vote.

Highlander used discussion, drama, and music to mellow differences, find common ground, and lift spirits. "We Shall Overcome," the freedom song heard round the world, began as an African-American folk song, became an African Americans Baptist hymn, and was reborn at Highlander where folk singers Zilphia Horton (Myles Horton's wife), Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger made it world famous.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968; Myles Horton died in 1990. Rosa Parks died in 2005.

It is interesting to recall that what drew these three and others together to foment the early civil rights movement was Myles Horton's Highlander Adult Education Center in Tennessee.

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