by iampunha | 7/05/2008 08:00:00 AM
The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (about 8:27 in)

No names in that speech, just thoughts. Thoughts for everyone.

One name would have merited special consideration. One white man's name, one Southern man's name, merits special consideration today.

You cannot consider the civil rights movement in any kind of depth without considering this man.

Do not misread that, friends. I mean it fully. It is not possible to consider the movement without the man.

The man, Myles Horton, was born on July 5, 1905.

For Larry Doby, who signed with the Cleveland Indians on this date in 1947, whose contribution to the civil rights struggle was lost in the shadow of his National League contemporary, and who must not be forgotten on this or any other day.

(For a previous discussion of King's speech, see this diary entry.)

It's no secret that I like to take the stories you thought you knew and blow them up.

For starters, Parks was a seasoned activist, not a novice. She had been an active member of her local NAACP chapter for over twelve years before refusing to move to the back of the bus, and she had participated in many discussions about how to launch a successful campaign against segregation. Contrary to the conventional story, her act of civil disobedience was pre-planned and aimed at sparking a powerful movement for freedom.

Secondly, Parks was a trained activist. The summer before her famous act of civil disobedience, Parks attended a ten-day activist training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. During a radio interview years later, Studs Terkel asked Parks what role Highlander played in her decision to act. Parks answered, "Everything."

Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton. His vision for the school was to bring poor and oppressed people together, encourage them to grapple with their everyday social problems, provide an arena for deep political reflection, and, ultimately, provide training workshops in the skills and strategies of social movement organizing.

-Thank You, Rosa Parks.

I disagree, as does Parks, with the author's assertion that Parks' action was preplanned:

"I did not get on the bus to get arrested; I got on the bus to go home."
Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the NAACP choose Rosa Parks to attend a desegregation workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Reflecting on that experience, Parks recalled, "At Highlander I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society…I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people."

Although her arrest was not planned, Park's action was consistent with the NAACP's desire to challenge segregated public transport in the courts. A one-day bus boycott coinciding with Parks's December 5 court date resulted in an overwhelming African-American boycott of the bus system. Since black people constituted seventy percent of the transit system's riders, most busses carried few passengers that day.

-Today in History: December 1.

It is as impossible to cover the civil rights struggle of the 1940s to 1970s without examining (knowingly or otherwise) Horton's fingerprints on it as it is to cover everything Horton did.

It's also impossible to say what fueled Horton's drive other than an innate desire to see everyone, everywhere, on equal footing. Such a drive is as admirable as it is unending, as unending as it is unimpeachable, as unimpeachable as it is universal:

Myles Horton entered Cumberland College in Tennessee in 1924 and almost immediately led a student revolt against the hazing of freshmen by fraternities.

But it was a summer job in 1927, when he was teaching Bible school classes to poor mountain people in Ozone, Tennessee, for the Presbyterian Church, that led him in his lifelong work: to build a school that would help people learn to transform the empoverished and oppressed conditions of mountain life. In his senior year at Cumberland and after graduation in 1928, he began organizing interracial meetings of the YMCA.

Read Myles Horton and Paulo Friere discuss an aspect of social change you didn't realize you understood. And on so deep a level, too. (There is much to be said about some of this as it relates to a current charismatic leader, but too soon we diverge from the path in the yellow wood, my friends.)

I will say two more things about the work the Hortons (Myles and Zilphia) did in the background of the civil rights movement.

The first begins the video I linked at the beginning of this entry.

The video of King's speech begins with a song many of you know pretty well.

I'm sure, in light of today's honoree, that you'll be unsurprised to find out that it was adapted for use by Highlander by Zilphia Horton (Myles' first wife) and Pete Seeger, among others.

This is the genesis of the other:

His most controversial work was a literacy program that taught thousands of blacks to read and write so they could register to vote in the 1950s.

Let us be forever thankful that teaching someone to read and write so she can vote can no longer be considered controversial.

Controversial. Teaching. Reading.

These words should not be in the same affirmative statement. Yet 50 years ago, it was controversial to teach black people to read and write so they could pass those immeasurably bigoted literacy tests.

Freedom and the controversy of increased literacy cannot coexist.