Rep. John Lewis on the Fire at the Highlander Center & the 51st Anniversary of King’s Death
I was disturbed to learn that just a few days before the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a fire burned the main building of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Some of the archives of a priceless history were lost. White power graffiti was also discovered there, raising questions about whether the fire was started by an arsonist who wanted to deliver a message of hate.
Sixty years ago, the center was called the Highlander Folk School, founded by Myles Horton and located in Monteagle, Tennessee. Horton had been a student of a powerful theologian of the day, Reinhold Neibhur, a philosopher, among others, students in the Nashville sit-in movement studied under the leadership of the Reverend James Lawson. The school’s early focus was on the ideas of the labor movement and in making adult education more accessible to people in Appalachia. But once Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, Highlander shifted its mission to tackle the thorny issues of racial integration, teaching everyone it could to respect the dignity of all humankind. It was a haven for Dr. King, a place where he could go to relax and repair his spirit in the glow of its “noble and creative work”.
It was at Highland Folk School that I shared a meal for the first time in my life in an integrated setting. I was a young adult, but I had never eaten a meal in the company of black and white diners. Highlander was the place that Rosa Parks witnessed a demonstration of equality that helped inspire her to keep her seat on a Montgomery bus, just a few after her first visit. She saw Septima Clark, a legendary black educator, teaching side-by-side with Horton. For her it was revolutionary. She had never seen an integrated team of equals working together, and it inspired her.
If Dr. King were here today, his words would ring so clear. He would say it is not so much a question of who but what. What is it that makes us feel threatened by a center that promotes peace and the brotherhood of all humankind? And what makes us believe that destroying a building will end the divine mandate of human unity? He would say, “The real problem is that through our scientific genius we've made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we've failed to make of it a brotherhood.”
When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, some people hoped that his vision of humanity would die with him. But on this anniversary of his death, at a time when activism is again rising to the forefront and the demand for progressive change is more insistent and persistent, it should be more plain than ever before that you can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea whose time has come. On this anniversary of his death, let us remind ourselves that the unity of all human kind is our inevitable end. It is either non-violence or non-existence.