Chartered in 1961, the Highlander Research and Education Center is the institutional successor of the Highlander Folk School. The adult education center operates in a considerably different context, however, working with more diverse, complex, and far-reaching issues and constituencies. Its central challenge has been to contribute as much to education and progressive change during the late twentieth century–a time without a unifying movement for social action–as the folk school did during the 1930s southern labor movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Highlander directed its efforts toward facilitating alliances among grassroots groups and linking local and regional problems to global developments. Through voter education projects, citizenship and political education schools, and workshops for southern black political candidates, Highlander continued to be an important part of the black freedom struggle into the 1960s. The center also confronted a segregationist backlash, as denunciations of the “Communist training school” appeared on area billboards. In 1968 a federal court injunction blocked a proposed legislative investigation of Highlander, and Tennesseans reconciled themselves to the school's presence.
Even as the attacks subsided, Highlander's teachers moved in new directions. Inspired by the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, they promoted the formation of a multiracial coalition that broke apart in the 1970s. Meanwhile, a new generation of faculty members returned to Highlander's roots to focus again on the problems confronting Appalachia. Residential workshops examined issues such as strip mining and occupational and environmental health hazards which would sustain community organizations. Research projects critically analyzed regional institutions and forced the Tennessee Valley Authority to open its decision-making process to public scrutiny. A leadership-development initiative connected Highlander to leaders in the Appalachian coal fields and fostered communication among them.
This reorientation was one of several signs that Highlander was making a transition from its folk school legacy. In 1972 the center moved from its original Knoxville headquarters to its current location, a 104-acre farm near New Market. Administrative leadership passed from Myles Horton to Mike Clark. In the 1970s and 1980s, workshops brought together several thousand Appalachian residents on an extensive range of issues. Area residents became involved in research that uncovered environmental threats and inequitable land ownership patterns. A Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program honed the organizational skills of indigenous leaders.
Realizing that the crises facing Appalachian communities were also found in other parts of the region and the world, Highlander expanded the geographic scope of its work and placed it in the global context of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the direction of Hubert Sapp, John Gaventa, and Jim Sessions, staff members pursued several related priorities: community empowerment, economic and environmental justice, leadership development, participatory research, international grassroots linkages, and maintenance of the center as a meeting ground for diverse cultures. Highlander endures as a place that nurtures strategies for resistance, democratization, and experiential education.