Six months prior to refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Rosa Parks received training in grassroots organizing from the staff of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Parks’ education at Highlander reflects the deeply-rooted, yet often overlooked, tradition of radical activism in the South upon which the modern civil rights movement was built. Since its founding in 1932, the Highlander Folk School has served as a crucial center of labor and civil rights organizing, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center.

Don West and Myles Horton, two former seminarians and native Southerners, founded Highlander Folk School in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Inspired largely by the folk schools they had visited in Denmark, which educated peasants in national folk culture as a means of social and political empowerment, West and Horton created a pedagogical model in which union members received training from Highlander in labor history and tactics in discussion-based seminars during residential workshops. The staff lay at the center of the CIO’s organizing efforts in the South in the late 1930s through late 1940s, until anti-Communist campaigns against the school soured its relationship with the CIO. By 1953, Highlander Folk School shifted its focus to civil rights activism, and its staff promoted models of citizenship schools and grassroots activism adopted by figures it trained from groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

My dissertation uses the cultural programs of the Highlander Folk School—folk music and dancing, labor theatre, and documentary filmmaking–as a lens through which to explore this network of radical organizations, folk schools, and labor colleges operating in the South from the Great Depression through the student movements of the early 1960s. Using materials from the Southern Historical Collection, Southern Labor Archives, Tennessee State Library and Archives, and Wisconsin Historical Society, I argue that Highlander’s deployment of folk music relied on the genre’s seeming traditionalism to present the staff’s radical message within a more socially acceptable mode. In doing so, these activists not only challenged the prevailing romanticized view of Appalachia, but also contributed to the transformation of the meaning of folk music to a populist, working-class form. Looking more broadly, institutions such as Highlander reshape how we understand the history of the civil rights movement by revealing how well-known tactics of that movement, including the performance of folk music, had emerged decades earlier in the efforts of labor activists. Because Highlander Folk School played a central role in a network of organizations seeking to alleviate the problems of poverty and discrimination in the South, its history sheds light on the successes and failures of the southern radical movement in mid-twentieth century America.