Educating for freedom: the Highlander Folk School in the Civil Rights Movement, 1954 to 1964

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Virginia Tech


This study explores how the Citizenship School Program of the Highlander Folk School shaped the grassroots leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. The thesis examines the role of citizenship education in the modern Civil Rights Movement and explores how educational efforts within the Movement enfranchised and empowered a segment of Southern black society that would have been untouched by demonstrations and federal voting legislation. Civil Rights activists in the Deep South, attempting to register voters, recognized the severe inadequacies of public education for black students and built parallel educational institutions designed to introduce black students to their rights as American citizens, develop local leadership and grassroots organizational structures.

The methods the activists used to accomplish these goals had been pioneered in the mid-1950’s by Septima Clark and Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School. Horton and Clark developed a successful curriculum structure for adult literacy and citizenship education that they implemented on Johns Island off the coast of South Carolina. The popularity of the schools spread to neighboring islands and continued to grow. Ella Baker, acting executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, brought the program to the attention of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in 1960, when the state of Tennessee closed Highlander Folk School, the SCLC adopted the Citizenship Education Program as its own. Under the auspices of the SCLC, Clark’s program became the paradigm for citizenship education throughout the Civil Rights Movement, up to and including the Freedom Schools incorporated into the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.