Highlander Research and Education Center is a left-of-center training organization that focuses on social and economic justice, environmentalism, and grassroots movements, especially in Appalachia and the American South. It is one of the seminal institutions of the modern American left, with roots going back to the New Deal and the civil rights movement.
The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee, by Myles Horton and a group of companions involved in religious ministry and labor union organizing. Horton was a native of Tennessee whose parents were active in left-wing causes: his mother, a teacher, organized classes for poor and illiterate neighbors, while his father was a member of the Workers Alliance, a union formed by employees of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Horton attended Cumberland University, where he led a student revolt against the hazing of freshmen by fraternities and protested against campus segregation. He later organized vacation Bible schools in the rural part of the state, developing an affinity for the rural poor in Appalachia. 
Horton attended the politically and theologically liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York, studying with theologian and “social gospel” proponent Reinhold Niebuhr. Under Niebuhr’s influence, Horton would become involved in labor unionism, organizing racially integrated strikes of garment workers in the South. Later, studying at the University of Chicago, Horton worked with Jane Addams at Hull House, the social reform settlement she founded. In the early 1930s, Horton visited Danish folk schools that preserved Danish culture, provided employment, and served as a focal point for political activism in rural areas of Denmark. He would found a similar school in Tennessee. 
Horton and his first class of eight students assisted striking miners in Wilder, Tennessee, by soliciting and distributing food and clothing. Responding to the tactics used by coal companies to suppress strikes, Horton developed a curriculum that taught workers and activist organizers labor history, union strategies, economics, journalism, public speaking, and parliamentary procedure. Highlander soon became a training hub for labor organizers from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, later part of the AFL-CIO.
In 1941, the editor of the Smith College newspaper, Betty Goldstein, attended Highlander’s summer journalism program. Later, under the name Betty Friedan, she wrote The Feminine Mystique, a foundational text of modern American feminism, and would co-found the National Organization for Women. 
Civil Rights Era
In the 1950s and 1960s, workshops and training sessions at the school helped to incubate the civil rights movement in the South, including playing a critical role in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a leading civil rights organization. Rosa Parks attended a ten-day symposium on strategies for implementing the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision at Highlander before launching the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956.
At the school’s 25th anniversary ceremony in 1957, speakers included Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Other graduates of the school included black separatist Stokely Carmichael and civil rights activist and former Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). As a result of these activities, Highlander was accused of Communist sympathies and inciting racial strife. 
In 1959, agents of the state of Tennessee raided the school and shut it down on the pretense that it was selling liquor without a license. In 1961, the state revoked the school’s charter, locked its doors, and seized its land and buildings for encouraging integrated educational activities. The school rechartered itself the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center. In 1963, local police raided an interracial camp organized by Highlander to train activists in civil disobedience. Twenty-nine people were arrested, and four days later the entire encampment was burned to the ground, allegedly by members of the Ku Klux Klan. 
Highlander is currently located on a mountainside farm near New Market, Tennessee.  In March 2019, the main building at Highlander was destroyed in an apparent arson attack. A white supremacist symbol was found painted in a nearby parking lot. 
In the 1960s and 1970s, Highlander expanded its focus to include training sessions for environmental activists, including organizers opposing strip mining in Appalachia and seeking compensation for miners suffering from black lung disease.  After a gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed more than 2,200 people and injured more than 500,000, Highlander brought Bhopal survivors to the United States to train and to protest Union Carbide’s domestic activities in Tennessee and elsewhere. 
Later, Highlander would incubate the STAY Project, which trains young people from Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia to stay in their communities and engage in environmentalist activism focused on Appalachian issues, including reducing coal field development and clearing legacy industrial sites. Highlander remains the STAY Project’s fiscal sponsor.  Among the Highlander Center’s current programs is the Appalachian Transition Fellowship, a program for environmental and economic activists who oppose continued coal field development in Appalachia. 
Highlander held its first organizing session for gay and lesbian activists in 1986.  In the early 1990s, it incubated Southerners on New Ground (SONG), one of the first LGBT-interest groups in the South, which trains social-liberal activists to work in Southern states. 
Highlander also serves as the fiscal sponsor for a number of left-wing and activist organizations, including National Bail Out, which advocates against cash bail and pretrial detention of criminal suspects; BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity), a training organization for black activists; Southern Connected Communities, which advocates for the expansion of broadband internet access in Appalachia; and the People’s Advocacy Institute, a bail fund and activist training organization in Mississippi. 
Since 1966, Highlander has administered the We Shall Overcome Fund, which gives grants to minority artists and activists for artistic projects, workshops, and conferences. The fund is generated by royalties from the commercial use of the song “We Shall Overcome,” a folk song that was repurposed by Myles Horton’s wife Zilphia, Highlander’s music director. The song became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s after being revised again by folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. 
Since 1985, Highlander has run a summer Children’s Justice Camp that combines summer activities with training in left-wing activism.