STORY Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager, founder of the World's Folk High School, elaborates on the connection between the Danish folk high school and the American civil rights movement.
By Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager
“We tried to involve everybody in singing and doing drama and dancing and laughing and telling stories because that’s a part of their life. It’s more of a holistic approach to education, not just a bunch of unrelated segments. The way people live was more important than any class or subject that we were dealing with… They had that learning experience, making decisions, living in an unsegregated fashion, enjoying their senses other than their minds”
Dale Jacobs: The Myles Horton Reader, University of Tennessee 2003, p. XII.
Folk high school has to base itself on a holistic approach, in which music, dance and drama have a central place. Ever since the school was founded by Myles Hortonin in 1932, this was and has been the starting point for The Highlander Folk School – known today as Highlander Research and Education Center.
My journey to Highlander and the experiences to be gleaned from it have taken the form of a long, roundabout journey.
The world is out here
In 2015 the world came knocking at our door in earnest when that massive influx of refugees presented an acute challenge for us in Europe. I was teaching at Ry Folk High School, and even though everyday life at the school was as full of meaning as it was of joyful students, I believed that the folk high school – as a movement – had to leave behind its bricks-and-mortar limitations and enter the fray at full strength as a social force for action, one that creates cultural togetherness when the foundations start to fall apart.
This led to the project ‘Verden for dine fødder’ (‘The World at your Feet’) as part of the programme for Århus as European capital of culture 2017. The idea was to create an outreach ‘Pop-up folk high school’, which would use activities that involved citizens and focus on diversity as a resource to encourage new forms of togetherness across cultures, social divisions and generations in the Mid Jutland Region.
The idea was to create an outreach ‘Pop-up folk high school’, which would use activities that involved citizens and focus on diversity as a resource to encourage new forms of togetherness across cultures, social divisions and generations
Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager
We were given good financial support for the project and were well into project development, when President Obama singled out the Danish folk high school as having been at the centre of the American struggle for equal rights:
“Many of our Nordic friends are familiar with the great Danish pastor and philosopher Grundtvig. And among other causes he championed the idea of the Folk School. Education that was not just made available to the elite but to the many. Training that prepared a person for active citizenship. That improves society. Over time the Folk School movement spread, including here to the United States. And one of those schools was in the State of Tennessee. It was called The Highlander Folk School. At Highlander, especially during the 1950’s, a new generation of Americans came together to share their ideas and strategies for advancing civil rights. For advancing equality and for advancing justice. And we know the names of some of those who were trained or participated in the Highlander School. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They were all shaped in part by Highlander and the teachings of a great Nordic philosopher. And they ended up having a ripple effect on the civil rights movement and ultimately on making America a better place. We would not have been here had it not been for that stone that was thrown in the lake and created ripples of hope that ultimately spread across an ocean to the United States of America. And I might not be standing here were it not for the efforts of people like Ella Baker, and others who participated in the Highlander Folk School.”
Obama even ascribed to Highlander Folk School, and through it to Grundtvig and the Danish folk high school movement, some of the honour for him being able to take his place as the first coloured president of the USA.
We would not have been here had it not been for that stone that was thrown in the lake and created ripples of hope that ultimately spread across an ocean to the United States of America. And I might not be standing here were it not for the efforts of people like Ella Baker, and others who participated in the Highlander Folk School.
For me, this speech marked the start of a search to explore how the folk high school movement had flourished and spread outside the borders of Denmark. As a folk high school teacher for many years, it came as something of a surprise to me that this movement should apparently have acted as an inspiration to the civil rights movement and might even have paved the way for USA’s first coloured president. I felt touched by the wingbeat of history, and in September 2017 I travelled to Tennessee to take part in Highlander’s 85th “Homecoming”.
Grundtvig in The Deep South
I arrived the day before the jubilee and was warmly welcomed by the school’s two co-executive directors, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Allyn Maxfield-Steele. Highlander Research and Education Center is situated in ‘The Deep South’, a good 300 kilometres north of Atlanta in the Appalachian region. The school consists of buildings spread across a rolling landscape with a multi-sided red main building as a centre for teaching and meals.
Despite the immanent ‘Homecoming’, Highlander was nothing but calm and I made use of the time to dip into the school’s archives.
The school was founded by Myles Horton and Don West, who spent a year in 1929 at various Danish folk high schools. The depression was raging in USA, and the two young Americans from the southern states were deeply preoccupied in exploring how poor and apathetic country folk could be stimulated to liberate and organise themselves and to find the strength and the strategies that would bring social change.
A meeting in Chicago between Myles Horton and the Danish pastor and folk high school enthusiast Aage Møllerwould prove decisive, as Møller believed that Horton would be able to find what he was looking for in the Danish folk high school. Myles Horton and Don West travelled to Denmark and drew on the inspiration they received there to establish Highlander Folk School in 1932. Myles Horton wanted to find a way to change social conditions for the better, and the folk high school became his non-violent instrument.
A meeting in Chicago between Myles Horton and the Danish pastor and folk high school enthusiast Aage Møllerwould prove decisive, as Møller believed that Horton would be able to find what he was looking for in the Danish folk high school.
Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager
In the 1950s, Highlander took on a central role in the civil rights movement. It was the first place where coloured and white people could meet on equal terms, and this set off an avalanche that could not be halted. Rosa Parks was at Highlander prior to the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it was here that the leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were educated: Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis.
Charles ‘Chuck’ Neblett – a crucial meeting
On my final evening at Highlander, the icon of the civil rights movement, Charles Neblett, aged 76, went on stage in the big marquis and, supporting himself on a stick, generated an ecstatic atmosphere with simple folk songs: “Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom”, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round”, “Keep your eyes on the prize and move on.”
It was impossible not to sing along.
The following day, I get chatting with him and it turns into a long conversation. Since he was one of the founders of the protest song group, The Freedom Singers, at the age of just 20, he has often come to Highlander. The group arose out of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had recruited him in 1962 to take up his fight alongside them.
We sit in the large dining hall and talk about the meaning of song. Charles tells me that without song there would never have been a movement. Everyone sang, and The Freedom Singers showed people that song can be a weapon. His voice quivering with infectious enthusiasm, he tells me that Martin Luther King called communal singing, “The glue that holds the civil rights movement together”, and how as a youth he had become involved in the fight for freedom. Communal singing had been a natural part of Afro-American culture and was now organized by The Freedom Singers. The struggle cost him 26 terms in prison, including one on death row.
The glue that holds the civil rights movement together
Martin Luther King on communal singing
The Freedom Singers
It was the folk singer Pete Seeger who, having witnessed the power of The Freedom Singers’ communal singing and its fusion of negro spirituals with protest songs, proposed to the Executive Secretary of SNCC, James Foreman, that the group could be a powerful tool for the movement.
During the course of their first year, The Freedom Singers drove 80,000 kilometres in a Buick station wagon to spread the word, to organize and to collect funds for the movement. Communal singing gave people the strength to take part in demonstrations for their common aim of freedom and equality. Even before Highlander became the epicentre for the struggle for civil rights, communal singing had become an integral and highly prioritised part of their everyday lives. When black Americans started coming to Highlander, it was natural that negro spirituals became part of the school’s identity. Myles Horton’s wife, Zilphia Horton, is today credited with transforming hymns into songs, and the psalm “We shall overcome” became a central battle hymn of the civil rights movement. The folk high school song becomes the sound of social revolution.
Communal singing gave people the strength to take part in demonstrations for their common aim of freedom and equality.
Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager
On 28th August 1963, The Freedom Singers are summoned to Washington for The March for Jobs and Freedom. On Capitol Hill, they sang: “We shall not be moved” from the podium just before Martin Luther King Jr. gives his immortal speech, ‘I have a dream’.
A new interpretation of the folk high school concept
The conclusion of the year of the capital of culture is approaching, and in December 2017 we invite Charles Neblett to Denmark to take part in the culmination of ‘The World at your Feet’ – the last item of the programme for the capital of culture. It was a folk high school event in the Turbine Hall in Aarhus, and amongst others joining in were Spanish flamenco dancers, Danish musicians and hundreds of people living in the Mid Jutland Region. On 22nd December, we experience how, using simple verses and simple melodies, one man can transform us all into one great community of togetherness by repeating lines such as “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”
We sang historical hymns from the American civil rights struggle, but even 50 years on the unifying and universal power of the songs could arouse a deep resonance in the ears of those present in the Turbine Hall. This encounter with something at once foreign and familiar fired our slumbering faith that it is still possible to act during our own lives and in our own time – in a community of equality and solidarity.
This encounter with something at once foreign and familiar fired our slumbering faith that it is still possible to act during our own lives and in our own time – in a community of equality and solidarity.
Thorbjørn Carl Hjalager
The folk high school demonstrated that it can respond to the call of the challenge of the time. Charles Neblett sang the last words of the year of the cultural capital of Europe.
In 2019, as we celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Danish folk high school, ‘The World’s Folk High School’ is assembling The Freedom Singers in Denmark. Rutha Mae Harris, Bettie Mae Fikes, William Pearlman and Charles Neblett are embarking on what they themselves describe as ‘The Freedom Singer’s last great journey’.
It was on Himmelbjerget (Heaven Mountain), Denmark’s highest point, that between 1839 and 1844 St. St. Blicher used his five People’s Assemblies with their discussions, communal singing and speeches to feed the currents that led to the introduction of the constitution in 1849, as well as to the folk high school and the cooperative movements. And here it is that The Freedom Singers will mark the inauguration of ‘The World’s Folk High School’ – a universal folk high school concept that emanates from Heaven Mountain but which can spring up anywhere and will attempt to provide an answer to the challenges of the time.
The visit will be rounded off at the Folk High School’s major international celebration at Grundtvig’s Folk High School in Denmark, which is the very place where on Christmas Eve 1929 Myles Horton wrote in his diary:
“I couldn’t sleep – I have a dream. Go back. Find a simple place, move in and get started!”