Highlander Folk School (main building) Monteagle, Tennessee
In honor of Black History Month in February I had planned a series of posts on the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964. Well, we’re into March and I’m just getting around to fulfilling my plans, although the intervening period finds a modification in the original intent of the series. Having spent unexpected and considerable time reading afresh books I read not long ago because I’d lost the original notes, as well as discovering more recent scholarship on the subject, I decided to look a bit closer at what we might term (some of) the necessary historical and sociological conditions (being necessary, implies they may not have been sufficient) of Freedom Summer. Toward that end, this post will simply introduce the Highlander Folk School (HFS) as an exemplum of what Aldon Morris memorably termed a “movement halfway house” in his classic study, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (Free Press, 1984). Morris defines a movement halfway house as
“an established group or organization that is only partially integrated into the larger society because its participants are actively involved in efforts to bring about a desired change in society. The American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Highlander Folk School are examples of modern movement halfway houses.”
Importantly, Morris soon adds the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) to this list. As Clayborne Carson points out in his definitive examination of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced as if an acronym, with an added vowel sound: ‘snick’): “SNCC’s relations with SCEF illustrated a growing willingness of SNCC workers to associate with leftist groups,” in this instance, a comparatively small—in the sense of lacking a mass base—and predominantly white organization with goals close to, when not identical with, the civil rights movement. Although communists helped found this formally interracial organization in the 1930s, its ranks and supporters included non-communists as well. SCEF, for better and worse, attracted disproportionate attention given its fairly small size, while the steadfast and courageous efforts of its most active members speak to its equally disproportionate impact on other individuals and groups in the civil rights movement:
“During the late 1950s SCEF became a target of the southern press when one of its representatives, Carl Braden, refused to answer questions before HUAC [House Committee on Un-American Activities] and was later sentenced to a year in prison. Despite the controversy, SNCC leaders as early as the fall of 1960 developed close ties with Braden and his wife Anne. SCEF’s newspaper, The Southern Patriot, devoted considerable coverage to SNCC activists at a time when the organization received little attention elsewhere, and during 1960 and 1961 the paper contained essays written by Ella Baker and James Lawson.
The Bradens had gained the trust of SNCC workers because they understood better than most white leftists the militant mood of black activists, and they respected the desire of those in SNCC to remain independent of all outside control.”
Both Anne Braden and Ella Baker attended Highlander Folk School workshops (in particular for our purposes, its ‘college workshops’). In fact, it was shortly after the HFS’s seventh annual college workshop on April 1, 1960 that sit-in leaders from the college ranks met to form SNCC under the initiative of Ella Baker, then serving as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The formal structure for SNCC was created in October 1960.
HFS, like other movement halfway houses, provided an array of “social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society” for existing and future SNCC activists. The pedagogical, epistemic, and political functions performed so ably by HFS for SNCC and the civil rights movement generally, was strategically significant in (1) the coalescing and coordination of young black leaders, men and women; (2) in the provision of a mass education program that “was revolutionary from an educational, political, and social standpoint,” this being directly linked to mobilization outcomes; and (3) through its partial but no less exemplary instantiation of a “visible and successful model of a future integrated society.” The second and third strategic functions illustrate dimensions of what Wini Breines describes as “prefigurative politics,” at least insofar as we detect belief in and reliance on the theory and methods of participatory and deliberative democracy, as part of the greater attempt to embody here-and-now the future—socially integrated—society.
This society is not so much evidenced in direct action tactics and protests (although these are largely parasitic on the virtues of prefigurative community), but in the blurring and transcending of public and private boundaries that serve to privatize moral life on the one hand, and leave the work of politics to elites (politicians, bureaucrats, corporate lobbyists, professional experts…) on the other. This makes for the propitious emergence of moral if not “spiritual” communities whose members have devoted much of their lives to discerning—through thought and deed—the lineaments of the “good society,” of psychologically meaningful yet elusive notions of “happiness,” of the terms and conditions of human fulfillment. The interpersonal nature of these intimate communities is grounded in intrapersonal values, commitments, hopes and the like of self-defining and self-actualizing individuals who practice a revolutionary and eudaimonistic “politics of virtue.” Such communities are not “communitarian” if by that one means individuals are constitutionally deferent to existing traditions and social norms but rather emblematic of a eudaimonistic individualism in which communities serve as fora for interdependent values realization of persons who have come to feel a compelling and urgent obligation (from the outside looking in, this may appear as supererogatory) to realize objective values in the world, each individual serving as a unique locus for such values realization. In the words of the late David L. Norton,
“For eudaimonism the common good is no more and no less than the particular good of individuals in complementary interrelationship. The requirement for complementary interrelationship is implicit in the fact that the good to be actualized, conserved, and defended—the good that represents the individual’s achieved identity—is an objective good, that is, it is of value to others no less than to the individual who realizes it. [….] [E]very well-lived life must utilize values produced by (some) other well-lived lives. And that is to say that within a society, every person has a legitimate interest in the personhood of every other. [….] In this form of community individual self-determination, self-direction and self-fulfillment are not sacrificed to the ‘common good’ but nurtured as the foundation of the common good.”
In the civil society of capitalist democracies, such communities are fragile and evanescent, and being merely one form of associated living, must compete in a neo-Malthusian and socially Darwinian environment with larger and more impersonal forms of same that serve as vehicles for the regnant cultural ethos and dominant ideologies that shamelessly exhibit symptoms of what Erich Fromm diagnosed as a “fear of freedom” and a “pathology of normalcy.”
The prefigurative politics of virtue in the moral and spiritual communities nurtured by HFS and SNCC was revolutionary or radical to the degree that it went beyond the goals of the mainstream civil rights organizations and the conventional politics of constitutional Liberalism in seeking societal wide systemic change involving socio-cultural and economic spheres and institutions heretofore structurally resistant to the imperatives of egalitarian distributive justice and the extension of the principles and practices of participatory and deliberative democracy. This revolutionary politics involves the struggle to generalize the welfare and individual well-being of all members of society so as to collectively supply as a moral and political entitlement grounded in human dignity, the conditions and opportunities of moral and psychological individuation and self-determination insofar as these cannot be self-supplied by individuals (alone or in community). SNCC’s Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 was a vivid and inspiring demonstration of the germination of seeds sown by earlier traditions of radical black activism (especially communists, and both here and abroad), civil rights organizations (e.g., NAACP, CORE, and SCLC), and movement halfway houses like HFS. It is no exaggeration to characterize HLS’s pivotal halfway house role here as “the educational center of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s” (emphasis added) and, “until 1961…in the forefront of the drive to end racial segregation in the South.”
In our next post, we’ll examine in finer detail the pedagogical, epistemic, and political practices of the Highlander Folk School.
 Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: Free Press, 1984): 39.
 Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995 ed.): 51.
 Ibid., 51-52.
 Morris, 139-140.
 Ibid., 141.
 “Prefigurative politics” is discussed in the chapters 1 and (especially) 4 in Wini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal (New Brunswick, NJ” Rutgers University Press, 1989).
 See David L. Norton, Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991). On “community” in SNCC, consider what James Forman wrote at the time of SNCC’s fourth general conference in April 1963. After first noting the group’s achievement of organizational security, in the sense that it was no longer insecure about its survival, he says, “The meeting was permeated by an intense comradeship, born out of sacrifice and suffering and a commitment to the future, and out of knowledge that we were indeed challenging the political structure of the country, and out of a feeling that our basic strength rested in the energy, love, and warmth of the group. The band of sisters and brothers, in a circle of trust, felt complete at last.” Quoted in Carson, 82.
 Ibid., 124.
 On how “dignity” might provide such a grounding: George Kateb, Human Dignity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), and Jeremy Waldron, with comments by others (Meir Dan-Cohen, ed.) Dignity, Rank, and Rights, The Berkeley Tanner Lectures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 John M. Glen, Highlander: No Ordinary School (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2nd ed., 1996): 3 and 154 respectively.
(The last post in the series will contain a select bibliography.)