Myles Horton

Myles Horton Biography

Environmental Activist, Civil Rights Activist (1905–1990)
20th century visionary Myles Horton founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, focusing on labor organizing, civil rights and advocacy for the poor.


Born on July 9, 1905, in the region of Savannah, Tennessee, Myles Horton was inspired by progressive Danish schools and his own community activism to found the Highlander Folk School in 1932. Despite attacks, the institution made strides in labor organizing and Civil Rights Movement work, actively opposing segregation. A great believer in free thought, Horton died on January 19, 1990.


Myles Falls Horton was born on July 9, 1905, in a rural area near Savannah, Tennessee, to Elsie Falls and Perry Horton, educators who later worked an assortment of jobs. Though growing up with limited financial resources, Horton was taught by his parents to value others in his community as well as the power of organizing.

Horton attended Cumberland University in the 1920s, experiencing ethnic diversity. In the summer of 1927, he worked for the Presbyterian Church and ran community meetings, with an emphasis on people telling their stories. After studying at Union Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago by the start of the 1930s, Horton traveled to Europe. He visited and scrutinized the folk schools of Denmark, which emphasized social engagement of issues over more dogmatic, academic styles of learning.

Founding Highlander

While abroad, Horton resolved to create a school in his home region that would focus on people sharing and analyzing their experiences, using revelations to effect social change and initiate self-growth. With a group of others, he started the Southern Mountains School (later renamed the Highlander Folk School) in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee.

Highlander was known for its advocacy for the impoverished and labor organizing, working with the Congress of Industrial Organizations and implementing training programs. The school later initiated classes for African-American students with the intent of driving voter registration, and became a place for discussing Civil Rights Movement strategies.

Highlander thus was a unique oasis in the legally segregated state, where black and white citizens freely co-mingled. People who attended and/or taught at Highlander include Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, Julian Bond, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Vitriol and Violence

Highlander faced opposition from regional governmental forces as well as the Ku Klux Klan, with staff being physically attacked and the organization facing slurs and accusations of communism from political conservatives. The school was shut down by the state in 1961, only to be reopened immediately by Horton as the Highland Research and Education Center, relocating to Knoxville.

Beliefs, Expansion and Legacy

Horton believed in the importance of a pluralistic, free-thinking society that deviated from systems of indoctrination often put forth by traditional education. "People are creative," Horton said at age 75 in a television interview on Bill Moyers' Journal. "You've got to allow them to do a lot of things that don't fit any kind of system."

In 1972, Highlander moved to the expansive, hilltop farm site of New Market, Tennessee, continuing its activism over the years with work on immigrant's and women's rights and anti-globalization policies. Horton retired as director in 1973, but remained active with the institution afterward.

Myles Horton died in New Market on January 19, 1990, of brain cancer. He was survived by his two children. Books on his life include his autobiography, The Long Haul, and We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change by Paulo Freire; both works were published in the year of his passing.

A documentary on Highlander and its activists—You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South—was released in 1985.

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