When I was working on my dissertation on labor unions in the early 20th century and their intersection with theatre, I did a great deal of archival research all around the United States. Most of it was at organized libraries, where well-trained archivists would bring me boxes of material to sort through at tightly-controlled spaces as I searched for play manuscripts that had never been published, as well as letters, programs, and anything else that would help.
Things were different when I went to the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. For one, it was just up the road a bit from where I was living in Knoxville. And it’s a compound of buildings, with gathering spaces and rooms for workshops. Highlander has a magical feel to it. It’s not just the history, although that’s pretty amazing.
Started in southeast Tennessee in 1932 as a place for the arts, it quickly became a space for union activism and organizing and training for the Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King doing some of his early work there. After political forces closed the original Folk School, it moved to Knoxville for a decade (right across the Tennessee River from where I ended up living many years later). Finally, it moved to its current site in New Market in 1972. It is still deeply involved in the fight for racial and gender justice, as well as for rights for immigrants and workers.
I went to Highlander in the early 1990s, when it was still reeling from the death of one its founders, Myles Horton, and I got there just before they were going to send some of their archives up to the Wisconsin State Historical Society. They let me go up to the attic of the main building and told me I could dig through the boxes as long as I put everything back. I sat on the dusty floor, crawling from box to box, poring through the history of the region, of the school, delicately opening folders with yellowed papers and fading photographs, until I found a bounty of typewritten pages, scripts from the 1930s, things that no one had looked at in over a half-century. I went back for days, and everyone there was encouraging and wanted to talk about what I found. They didn’t even realize they had those documents. In the year or so I wandered the nation, gathering my material, Highlander was the place where I felt most connected to the past I wanted to reveal.
It had seemed that Highlander had outlasted the forces that tried to destroy it over and over, whether it was Communist-hunting opportunist politicians or the KKK tossing bombs into their windows or any of a number of threats. But last week, that main building burned to the ground in a suspicious fire. Nobody was hurt, although “decades of archives” were also destroyed. The fire is being investigated as arson.
And then, this week, the Center posted on its Facebook page that a white nationalist symbol was found spray-painted on their parking lot. The symbol is like a hashtag with extra lines, and while it comes from an anti-Semitic hate group from Romania in the 1930s, it is popular with the current crop of radicalized racists. The “triple cross” was seen on a t-shirt worn by at least one of the neo-Nazi pieces of garbage in Charlottesville, and it was on the gun used by the miserable worm who murdered so many people in Christchurch, New Zealand.
On Facebook, the directors of the Center wrote, “Highlander is a sacred place built by communities of the most affected people and it has become a home to those who believe in freedom and collective liberation here in the south, across the U.S and around the world. Because of our history we are not surprised that this space, one where marginalized people working across sectors, geographies and identities show up consistently, has been repeatedly targeted over our 87 years of existence.”
And, depressingly, isn’t that where we are now? While the White House conspicuously and suspiciously denies any upswing in white nationalist violence and terrorism in the United States, even the FBI director said today that the “danger … of white supremacists, violent extremism or any other kind of extremism is, of course, significant…We assess that it is a persistent, pervasive threat.” Murders, fires, intimidation, and more are going to proliferate unless law enforcement treats white nationalist groups like the terrorists they are.
I said that more than the history of Highlander made it magical. It’s in a space surrounded by mountains, a gorgeous, peaceful area. When you step outside, you feel you are in the heart of Appalachia. And Highlander has worked to improve the lives of the people of the region as much as it has worked for anyone else. Even if one of those people is responsible for the fire, it won’t deter the Center’s mission to help them.
Highlander’s leaders are unbowed. They wrote, “This is a time for building our power. Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times. Now is not the time to dismiss how scary things are, which makes it even more important to have concrete assessments of concrete conditions, and sophisticated strategies to build a new world.”
It is scary out there. And we need to fight the beliefs of those who want to scare us into complacency, retreat, and silence.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 4, 2019 on The Rude Pundit, a website featuring commentary by Lee Papa. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Papa.