Elsa Knight Thompson recognized the transformative potential of the Civil Right Movement before many journalists. She had spent the war years in Great Britain where African-American soldiers integrated into English society, attending churches, going to movies or theaters and eating in restaurants with white people. It was something that Southern Blacks could not do in their own country. 130,000 US African-American soldiers passed through Great Britain during the war. Accepting segregation on their return home became simply impossible. By 1960 these veterans’ children were fifteen or sixteen years old, ready to realize their parents’ dreams. Elsa saw the struggle coming.
In 1959, Elsa interviewed Myles Horton, founder in 1932 of the Highlander Folk School outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Horton established Highlander to help poor people organize. His basic idea was that oppressed people are lost as individuals but together can find solutions. The way to do it is through story telling, performance and music. Horton once said that if he could get deadly enemies to sit down together in a circle and listen to each other’s personal stories, there would never be another war.
Horton was part of the non-Communist old left, a remnant of what was once a vital part of life in the United States, until the anti-Communist Crusade pushed progressives out of positions of influence in the Nineteen Fifties. Highlander survived in the Tennessee mountains until Horton turned its attention to desegregation. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel … that entire generation of activists … came through Highlander.
The desegregation workshops were biracial, in violation of Tennessee law. On October 31, 1959, twenty deputy sheriffs arrested a biracial group attending a Highlander Citizenship School. The Tennessee Supreme Court revoked Highlander’s charter and padlocked the buildings. A few days later the buildings burned to the ground. The land was sold at public auction.
Elsa talked to Horton shortly after he transferred the Schools to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960. “You can padlock a building,” he said. “You can’t padlock an idea. Highlander is an idea. You can’t kill it and you can’t close it in. This workshop is part of the idea. It will grow wherever people take it.”
The commercial media was not much interested in civil rights at the time. Few reporters had heard of Highlander and most missed entirely the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that summer, inspired by another Highlander graduate Etta Baker. Elsa covered both stories on Pacifica stations.
I was in the right place to observe the most exciting story of my time. I could afford to work for cheap because I had no student debt to pay off. I needed only a few clothes, a refrigerator, a stove and a record player. I went camping for vacations and to parties a few times a week for entertainment. Fred Haines had a big enough living room for a few guitars and drums, and he was a skilled musician. We’d bring cheap beer and red wine and sing American folk ballads, labor songs from the 1930’s, anti-fascist songs from the war years and songs of resistance to McCarthyism.