Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1957

Martin Luther King speaks at Highlander

In 1957, two years after the civil rights movement began to spread in the south of the United States, a young Martin Luther King visited the Highlander Center in Tennessee to participate in the celebrations of its twenty-fifth anniversary. On that occasion, King called on those present to become 'maladjusted' to the evils of segregation, to the madness of militarism and to the inequalities of an unfair economic system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few.

A few years later, in 1961, after a series of conversations between King and Myles Horton, Highlander's founder, they decided to transfer Highlander's Citizenship School program (oriented towards empowering blacks to exercise their right to vote and to become social activists) to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his farewell speech to the prospective teachers who were in training at Highlander, and would be working on spreading the program throughout the South, Myles Horton said the following words:

People learn faster and with more enjoyment when they are involved in a successful struggle for justice that has reached social movement proportions, one that is getting attention and support outside the movement, and it's socially big enough to go far beyond the individuals involved. It 's a much bigger experience than anything you've have before as an individual. It's bigger than your organization, and it's qualitatively different, not just more of the same. I want the struggle for social and economic justice to get big and become so dynamic that the atmosphere in which you are working is so charged that sparks are darting around very fast, and they explode and create other sparks, and it's almost perpetual motion. Learning jumps from person to person with no visible explanation of how it happened. To get something like this going in the first place you have to have a goal. That goal shouldn't be one that inhibits the people you are working with, but it should be beyond the goal that you expect them to strive for. If your goal isn't way out there somewhere and isn't challenging and daring enough, then it is going to be in your way and it will also stand in the way of other people (Horton 1998: 108).

Martin Luther King had indeed a goal that was both challenging and daring. On August 28, 1963, he expressed those goals on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in a historic speech known as "I have a Dream." Among King's dreams were the following (for a full version of the speech click here):

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The following year, talking to a church group in 1964, King elaborated on the theme of maladjustment and proposed a new organization, "the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment for men and women who will be maladjusted". Following in the footsteps of Ghandi, King believed that maladjustment with the status quo would lead to massive nonviolent, transformative collective action.

The cross-fertilization of ideas and actions between Horton and King, particularly through the links between Highlander and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, made a significant impact on the civil rights movement.

Reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King after his assassination, Myles Horton said the following:

King saw racial injustice as part of a larger problem and civil rights as part of a human rights struggle, including the right to life itself...While some of the goals of the civil rights movement were not realized, many were. But the civil rights movement as it was then cannot and should not be imitated. It was creative, and we must be creative. We must start where Martin luther King, Jr., was stopped, and move on to a more holistic world conception of the struggle for freedom and justice" (Horton 1998:120).

Source:

Horton, Myles (with Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl). The long haul: an autobiography. Columbia Teachers College, NY, 1998.

Prepared by DS

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Last updated on October 15, 2004.