At Famed Civil-Rights Center, Fire Destroys a Building, But Not a Mission

A fire destroyed the main offices of the Highlander Education and Research Center in New Market, Tennessee, on Friday, March 29. Photo: New Market Fire and Rescue Team

When the governor of Tennessee revoked the Highlander Research and Education Center’s charter in 1961, its founder, Myles Horton, said he wasn’t worried about the future of the civil-rights institution. “My friend here, he thinks he’s padlocking Highlander,” he explained to a reporter 20 years later. “But Highlander is an idea. You can’t padlock an idea.”

Horton was right. Highlander survived, even thrived. The idea at the heart of the Highlander — to organize the South for civil rights — drew activists like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Representative John Lewis to its workshops and training sessions. The same idea has long made the center the focus of attacks from segregationists and other factions of the far-right.

Now Highlander’s supporters fear that someone may have targeted the center again. On March 29, a fire destroyed the center’s main office building in New Market, Tennessee. Days later, the center and local authorities confirmed that staff had discovered a symbol associated with white supremacy in a parking lot. Jefferson County sheriff Jeff Coffey described it as “the hashtag symbol”; a photograph from the scene published in the Knoxville News Sentinel shows three vertical lines crossed with three horizontal lines, drawn in black spray paint on the pavement. The symbol originated with the Iron Guard, a fascist group active in Romania in the ’30s and ’40s, and it’s been resurrected by some contemporary right-wing extremists. The Christchurch mosque shooter drew the mark on his rifle, and it was used by members of the recently disbanded Traditionalist Worker Party, a white-nationalist group. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department says its investigation into the symbol and the fire is ongoing.

Ash-Lee Henderson, a native of east Tennessee and the first black woman to become Highlander’s executive director, believes the incident may be connected to a “growing” global white-power movement. “Their presence has been more overt so that more and more people are seeing it, whether the attacks in technocratic terms have been increasing or not,” she told New York.

Highlander has been working to oppose these forces since it was founded in 1932, as the Highlander Folk School. Though it initially provided vocational training to adults in Grundy County, Tennessee, Myles Horton had political ambitions for his new school, too. “Their founding documents basically state that they wanted to create a new social order in the South,” explained Emily Senefeld, a visiting lecturer in history at Sewanee, the University of the South. That new social order had a distinctly left-wing shape. In its early years, the center helped train labor activists and played an integral role in helping to desegregate the trade-union movement.

As a consequence, anti-communists began smearing the school within months of its creation. “Even in the late 1930s, Highlander was being targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee long before the better known investigations of the 1950s,” she said, referring to probes by the governments of Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. By that point, the center had begun training and hosting civil-rights activists, including John Lewis.

“It was at the Highlander Folk School that I shared a meal for the first time in my life in an integrated setting. I was a young adult, but I had never eaten a meal in the company of black and white diners,” Representative Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, explained in a statement shared with New York. Highlander, he added, was where Rosa Parks “witnessed a demonstration of equality that helped inspire her to keep her seat on a Montgomery bus, just a few days after her first visit.”

Henderson, the center’s executive director, describes Highlander as part of a broader southern freedom movement, which has gained strength even as white nationalists grew their own networks. “There’s this long and radical legacy of resistance, like the black liberation movement, which some people call the civil-rights movement. That was rooted in the South. Even before that, the struggle to abolish slavery obviously is a southern story. And we won some victories there,” Henderson said, laughing.

Faced with a decades-old smear campaign, the center has repeatedly proven its resilience. After the state of Tennessee confiscated Highlander’s Monteagle property in 1961, the school renamed itself the Highlander Education and Research Center, and moved first to Knoxville and then to its current location in rural New Market. Though its name and location have changed, the character of its work remains roughly the same. Today the center helps fund the STAY Project, which supports young environmental and civil-rights activists in central Appalachia, along with National Bail Out Collective, which coordinates bail for incarcerated low-income people, and the Power U Center for Social Change, which works with youth of color in Miami, Florida.

If March’s fire turns out to be a hate crime, there doesn’t appear to be a specific, catalyzing moment to explain why someone would attack the center now. Highlander is doing what Highlander has always done. But broader trends may offer an explanation. Nationally, hate crimes are on the rise. In 2018, the FBI reported that rates of reported hate crimes increased 17 percent from 2017. (The real figure is almost certainly higher, as many victims don’t report hate crimes.) Since President Trump took office, white-nationalist violence has claimed lives in a number of high-profile incidents, from Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the killing of 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue. Members of Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group, have been linked to five murders nationwide. There have been other near misses, like the arrest of Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant who reportedly dreamed of a “white homeland” and had a kill list.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken steps that reduce the government’s focus on white-nationalist violence as a security threat. Weeks before the violence in Charlottesville, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded a grant to Life After Hate, a nonprofit that helps individuals transition out of white-nationalist organizations. Just this week, the Daily Beast reported that sometime last year the Department of Homeland Security disbanded a group of analysts that focused on domestic terrorism. (DHS disputed the notion that it’s reduced its commitment to “defeating all forms of radical ideology — including white supremacist and domestic terrorist,” telling the Daily Beast that’s “patently false and the exact opposite of what we have done.”)

Though white nationalists have always been active in east Tennessee, there’s now some evidence of increased activity. Before the Traditionalist Worker Party dissolved last year, its founder, Matthew Heimbach, was spotted repeatedly in Knoxville. He counterprotested the Knoxville Women’s March in January 2018, then held a talk on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the following month. A cached version of a Twitter account under Heimbach’s name — which was created in February and may have been deleted earlier this week — shows his location as Tennessee, though it doesn’t specify the town. (A source familiar with the matter told New York that Twitter did not take action on the Heimbach account.) Knoxville Radical Alliance, a local anti-fascist group, posted images of masked fascists marching in the area last weekend, and referenced a newly formed fascist group. A website for the group, which calls itself the Legion of St. Ambrose and uses Orthodox Christian imagery, appeared earlier this year. Flyers from the TWP and Identity Evropa, another white-nationalist organization that has since attempted to rebrand itself, have been discovered on the campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

Henderson said that Highlander hasn’t received any recent threats, though Monica Hernandez, who worked at the center for a decade before she became the founding president of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, recalled receiving threatening email and hate mail before she left in 2011. “There was some activity that we were aware of, with white supremacists in the area,” she added. “We were always super vigilant.”

For now, Highlander’s staff and supporters are waiting for the investigation to conclude. Henderson told New York that they haven’t yet been able to access the burned building and assess their losses. “What we do know is that it is unlikely that we didn’t lose some historic documents that we kept in the building,” she said. “What we know we lost for sure is some of the other, just as powerful memorabilia that we had in the office. Cards that people sent us thanking us for being who we are to movements. Pictures that our children drew. Things that we brought from our homes to remind us of how this place is also a home for so many, including our staff and participants.”

Despite these losses, Henderson says that the center intends to break ground on the construction of a new library, named for civil-rights icon Septima Clark. Hernandez says she believes that Highlander will continue to thrive. The fire, she said, “is a warning to all of us that we need to be alert.”

“But I know the spirit of Highlander,” she added. “I know it’s beloved by thousands of people here and all over the world. I know the mission will continue, and it will flourish.”

Fire Damages Famed Civil-Rights Center, But Not Its Mission