Highlander Folk School and the criminalization of organizing
In August 1955, Rosa Parks attended a two-week workshop at Highlander Folk School on implementing school desegregation. Founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton as an adult organizer training school, Highlander sought to build local leadership for social change. Parks arrived at Highlander in low spirits, “tense and nervous” following years of political activity that had produced almost no change.
“I was 42-years old and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people.” Spending two weeks alongside 47 others strategizing for school desegregation began to lift her spirits. She was in awe of Septima Clark, who ran the workshop, and how calm and courageous she was. (Clark had been fired from her job as a teacher for retaining her membership in the NAACP.)
Still on the last day, when asked what she would do when she returned to Montgomery, Parks said that because Montgomery was the Cradle of the Confederacy nothing would happen there because white resistance was too high and black people wouldn’t stick together. But she promised to go back and work with her NAACP Youth Council.
Highlander would be increasingly red-baited over the years for this adult organizer training. A broadside put out by the Georgia Commission on Education in 1957 attacked the school as a “Communist training school” and featured 15 pictures of “leaders of every major race incident,” five with Parks clearly visible. A million copies of the broadside were distributed by 1959. Pictures and billboards would circulate throughout the South using one of the photos from the pamphlet with Martin Luther King attending a “Communist training school” with Rosa Parks at his side. Parks continued her affiliation to Highlander during this difficult period, sending support, serving as a sponsor in 1962, and “offering to do whatever I can.”
Video: Ed Friend’s Highlander Folk School Film, 1957. From the Richard B. Russel Library for Political Research and Studies, UGA Libraries.