Funding Work That Will Transform Everything

This October marks the 60th year since the state of Tennessee forcibly removed Highlander from our first home in Grundy County, TN. After almost three decades of serving as a school and meeting ground for grassroots leaders across the South and Appalachia, the Tennessee state legislature passed a resolution in 1959 to investigate Highlander’s work. A night-time summer raid by authorities resulted in arrests and a protracted legal battle that ended in 1961, when the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the charges brought against us. The state revoked our original charter and seized the land, building, and assets, later auctioning much of it off to the highest bidders.

In any other circumstance, the charges would normally have resulted in a fine; however, the attack came from segregationists who not only engaged in direct violence against people, but also sought to dismantle the kind of infrastructure that the Black Freedom movement and its various allies like Highlander were building.

In that era, Highlander’s work benefitted from and represented the strength of a Black-led, multi-racial, multi-class movement—one that terrified the white supremacist status quo. In few places was the long-term political, social, economic, and cultural potential of that movement more evident than in the success of the Citizenship School program.

Led by Director of Workshops Septima Clark, the Citizenship School program was, on the surface, a literacy program born in the Sea Islands of South Carolina that soon spread across the region with Highlander’s support. The basic intent of the program was to help Black folks who couldn’t read learn to read and write so they could pass the voting literacy tests and cast a vote. But the program also functioned as a practice ground for democracy itself. Teachers were learners, and learners were teachers. Discussions about economic alternatives, politics, and cultural traditions were as important as reading and writing skills.

In the Citizenship School program, democracy came alive, and a living democracy is the right wing’s greatest fear for at least three reasons:

1) People who know the rules of economic and governance systems also know how to change the rules,

2) People who are actively practicing democracy and know how to change the rules have collective power, and

3) People who are conscious of their own collective power can and will transform everything.

Containers like the Citizenship School, whether nurtured by the Highlander Center or any number of our sister organizations historically or today, are the kinds of initiatives, efforts, and programs that help more and more people realize that they have the power and brilliance to transform everything.

In recent years, a lot of us at Highlander and elsewhere have been naming the dire need to continue building out more opportunities like the Citizenship School programs for deeper and longer haul leadership development—a kind of grassroots accompaniment with people from their earliest to latest years in life, one that creates the kind of training opportunities for more people to develop sharper thinking and skilled-up practices for how to organize and educate for liberation … and one that transcends election cycles.

Resources for that kind of long-term accompaniment will require longer term funding strategies and a willingness to relinquish our explicit and implicit desires to see immediate results.

But be careful—funding that kind of work may just transform everything.