By Stephen Preskill, author of Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision for Social Justice
May Day in 1930 America was a dismal affair. In the first months of the year, the United States, like much of the rest of the world, was sinking into a deep economic depression. May Day celebrations, which traditionally honored workers and their right to a fair wage and an 8-hour day, deteriorated into confrontations between law enforcement and labor organizers. Fearful that workers would grow unruly because of their struggles to secure stable employment, many police officers tore into parades and demonstrations wielding heavy nightsticks to preempt serious uprisings. Notably, this strategy tended to fuel more violence than it stopped.
It was witnessing this violence on May Day that prompted an awakening in Myles Horton on his journey to radical labor activism. As I write in my new book, Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision for Social Justice, Horton was one of the south’s most dedicated freedom-fighters, and spent most of his adult life committed to social justice. Horton would go on to co-found the Highlander Folk School, a retreat center in the Tennessee mountains where people committed to anti-racism and economic democracy gathered – in violation of segregation laws – to push for social change. Years later, Cornel West would hail Horton for being the white person who did the most to support the black freedom movement.
In 1930, two years before he helped start the Highlander Folk School, Horton was attending classes at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, hoping to uncover a blueprint for his adult center. Tired of studying, he wandered the streets, looking for something to occupy him. As he headed downtown, he encountered colorful parades and demonstrations of thousands of workers agitating for emergency legislation to rescue labor unions. That particular day, Horton wore a jersey from his time as a tackle for the Cumberland University football team. The jersey was maroon, echoing one of the school’s official colors. The front was emblazoned with the initials CP, which stood for Cumberland Presbyterian ¾ the variant of Presbyterianism the school followed.
As he milled about the crowded streets, Horton saw police equestrians using their batons to maintain order. Suddenly, one of the mounted officers seemed to come out of nowhere. He reached down and walloped Horton over the head, shouting “Goddam Bolshevik!” The policeman had mistaken the Cumberland Presbyterian shirt for one of the Communist Party’s most radical founding factions. A shaken and confused Horton later said that “I hurried back to my books to find out what a Bolshevik was.” Like so many other experiences of blatant injustice, this event greatly accelerated his radicalization and made his search for answers more urgent than ever.
By fall of 1932, Horton returned to Tennessee and began fighting his own battles for worker rights. The situation he encountered in Wilder, Tennessee, not long after he co-founded the Highlander school, was one of cruelty and desperation. Heartless mine owners had imposed a twenty percent pay cut on already impoverished miners. After those miners struck in response and the owners retaliated by ripping the front doors off company housing in the dead of winter, Horton was devastated but refused to give in. It would be years before labor unions and labor organizers received the respect they deserved. Many people would later say that few Appalachians worked harder than Horton to help workers attain greater control over their lives. But through those difficult early years, Horton’s memory of the vicious cruelty of that May Day encounter stayed with him. Horton argued that the push for change must continue, because no matter how hopeless or desperate the situation might become, it was what our shared humanity demanded of us.