Rosa Parks’s Transformative Two Weeks at the Highlander Research and Education Center
April 09, 2019
We were devastated by the news of the fire that destroyed a building that housed the executive offices of the Highlander Research and Education Center. All those archives of civil rights history . . . gone. The loss is especially devastating, because Highlander Center, formerly known as Highlander Folk School, hosted Rosa Parks at workshops and training sessions. This excerpt from Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks shows just how pivotal and transformative the center was in Parks’s development as an activist.
At the urging of both E. D. Nixon and Virginia Durr, in the summer of 1955, Parks decided to attend a two-week workshop at the Highlander Folk School entitled “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” The Durrs had worked with Nixon on various civil rights cases, and on Nixon’s recommendation, Parks had started sewing for the Durr family, one of Montgomery’s most liberal white families. Due to their politics, the Durrs had been ostracized by many white friends and colleagues, Clifford giving up a position at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington because he refused to sign a loyalty oath. Virginia was even more of a firebrand, chairing Henry Wallace’s 1948 Virginia campaign (Wallace was the Progressive Party’s candidate for president), running for Senate herself on the Progressive ticket, and going head-to-head with Senator James Eastland when he called her in front of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on charges of having Communist ties. The Durrs moved back to Montgomery in 1951 (both Virginia and Clifford had grown up in Alabama). Most white Montgomerians wanted nothing to do with them, making Clifford’s law practice in these years somewhat precarious and Virginia quite isolated. The Durrs had three daughters and not a lot of money, in part stemming from this red-baiting, and their relatives would send them old clothes to help out. Needing more income for her family, Parks began sewing for them in 1954, altering the clothes to fit the three girls and fashioning some of the garments for the Durrs’ daughter Lucy’s wedding trousseau. Durr and Parks spent a lot of time sitting and talking. Despite and alongside the gulf between white and black women in 1950s Alabama, the two grew friendly, though Parks maintained a certain formality with her employer.
A member of Highlander’s board of directors, Durr had seen the work Parks was doing with the NAACP Youth Council and knew how discouraged Parks had grown. As Parks recalled, “After that, I began getting obscene phone calls from people because I was president of the youth group. That’s why Mrs. Durr wanted me to come up here and see what I could do with this same youth group when I went back home.”
Myles Horton had cofounded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1932 as a grassroots, interracial leadership training school for adults. The school held workshops to help local people develop strategies for pursuing social change and cultivate their own leadership skills. In the mid-1950s, Highlander, which had been integrated from its beginnings in the 1930s, had started to turn its attention to civil rights, having previously concentrated on labor and anti-poverty organizing, largely with white Appalachians.
Though blacks had previously numbered about 10 to 15 percent of Highlander’s participants and had not spoken much at the meetings, the workshop Parks attended signaled a change. About half the participants at that workshop were black, and people participated avidly.
Horton had called Durr to tell her he had a scholarship for someone from Montgomery to attend the desegregation workshop. Durr immediately thought of Parks and how Highlander might help renew her embattled spirit. Nixon also urged Parks to go. Durr also called her friend Aubrey Williams, another liberal white Southerner and the publisher of the Southern Farmer, for further financial support because Mrs. Parks could not afford the roundtrip bus ticket to Tennessee.
Parks described her state of mind as she embarked for Highlander as “rather tense and maybe somewhat bitter over the struggle that we were in.” She was “willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.” Parks’s language reveals the toll that more than a decade of civil rights work had taken on her. Seeing little possibility for racial justice in her life and frustrated with attempts to pursue any form of school desegregation in Montgomery, she placed her hope in the younger generation and in trying to ensure that the Supreme Court’s decision was carried out “as it should have been.” Increasingly, she focused her efforts on the youth chapter, from which she hoped more determined action might come.
Upon receiving the Highlander scholarship, Parks wrote a thank-you letter conveying her eagerness to attend the workshop and mentioning that she knew two of the speakers, Dr. Charles Gomillion of Tuskegee Institute and Ruby Hurley, NAACP regional field secretary. Parks took two weeks off from her job as an assistant tailor at Montgomery Fair to attend, a significant request and economic sacrifice.
Parks tried to get her husband to go to Highlander with her, but he refused. According to Brinkley, Raymond was “irate” about Rosa going because he considered the school suspect. This may have stemmed from his work with Communists and former Communists in the Scottsboro case. Rosa’s mother was not well, but this did not stop her from going: “Parks and my mother could get along without me. He would cook.” As a young person, Raymond had taken care of his own mother and grandmother and, as Rosa’s activities took her away from home more often, he assumed some of the caretaker role for her mother.
Because Parks was fearful of being discovered going to Highlander, Durr accompanied her part of the way. “Just getting on the bus,” Parks recalled in language that even decades later reveals how nervous she had been, “I found myself going farther and farther away from surroundings that I was used to and seeing less and less of black people. Finally I didn’t see any black people and was met by this white person. I said to myself that I didn’t know where I was going, but they seemed to be nice enough . . . I was somewhat withdrawn and didn’t have very much to say. Finally I relaxed and enjoyed the stay there very much throughout the entire workshop.” The county where Highlander was located was all white—and though the school was integrated, Parks was initially nervous at being surrounded by white people.
From July 24 through August 6, forty-eight people—teachers, union activists, civic leaders, and college students, about half of them black and half white—participated in a workshop designed, according to Highlander’s report, “for men and women in positions to provide community leadership for an orderly transition from a segregated to a non-segregated school system in the South.” The first few days, Rosa Parks barely talked at all, nervous about whether the whites in the group would actually accept her perspectives and fearful about describing the difficult situation activists faced in Montgomery. But she admired Highlander’s founder Myles Horton’s spirit and sense of humor. “I found myself laughing when I hadn’t been able to laugh in a long time.” And she started to grow more comfortable.
White and black people at Highlander lived, ate, discussed, and debated together—which was, by Southern standards, unimaginable. Parks particularly liked Horton’s tongue-in-cheek response to reporters who repeatedly asked how he managed to get blacks and whites at Highlander to eat together. “And he says, ‘First, the food is prepared. Second, it’s put on the table. Third, we ring the bell.’” Parks found herself “cracking up many times” at Horton’s way of pointing out the absurdity of segregation. Her spirits lifted. The variety of ways that Highlander subverted racial custom delighted Mrs. Parks. One of her favorite aspects of the two-week workshop was waking to up to “the smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing and know[ing] that white folks were doing the preparing instead of me.”
Septima Clark, a former South Carolina teacher, ran a number of the workshops. Two years earlier, she had attended her first Highlander workshop. Like Parks, Clark was friendly with a handful of white civil rights supporters, yet the interracial living impacted her as well. “I was surprised to know that white women would sleep in the same room that I slept in,” Clark observed, “and it was really strange, very much so, to be eating at the same table with them, because we didn’t do that.” Cobb echoed Clark’s feelings. “The eating together . . . I’ve always felt that eating together is a social sacrament.” For Parks and others, the naturalness of the Highlander’s integration—evident but not belabored—was key. Parks had participated in integrated groups and meetings, in particular Montgomery’s integrated Council of Human Relations. But she had disliked those meetings, telling Virginia Durr, “Every time I went to one of those meetings, I came away blacker than I was before, because everything was discussed in terms of race.”
Septima Clark had lost her teaching job of forty years when she refused to give up her membership in the NAACP. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board, many states red-baited the NAACP as a foreign and potentially subversive organization; the state of South Carolina required all employees to renounce their membership or lose their jobs. Clark had chosen to retain her membership and forfeit her position—and in 1955 had come to work at Highlander full-time. Parks was “very much in awe” of Clark. Despite her own political history, Parks believed Clark’s activities made “the effort that I have made very minute” and hoped for a “chance that some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me.” Parks noted how Clark “had to face so much opposition in her home state and lost her job and all of that. She seemed to be just a beautiful person, and it didn’t seem to shake her. While on the other hand, I was just the opposite. I was tense, and I was nervous and I was upset most of the time.” Parks found Clark’s calm determination remarkable.
The respite she found at Highlander was evident in her descriptions from a 1956 interview in which she described its “relaxing atmosphere” that was “more than a vacation but an education in itself.” She found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of all races and backgrounds meeting and having workshops and living together in peace and harmony.” The atmosphere proved a salve for some of the psychic exhaustion she had been feeling and began to transform what Parks imagined was possible, a society not riven with racism. “I had heard there was such a place, but I hadn’t been there.”
The school had a strong Christian sensibility. As with Parks, Horton’s revolutionary inspiration was Jesus who, Horton observed, “simply did what he believed in and paid the price.” This Christian view of social justice—that Christianity required activism and also buttressed it—squared with Parks’s worldview. Christian social thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, one of Martin Luther King’s theological inspirations, would be one of the school’s strongest supporters.
Johns Island organizer Esau Jenkins explained the purpose behind Highlander’s workshops. “Well, we was talking about civil rights, constitutional rights, the Bill of Rights, and anything that is your right—if you don’t fight for it, nobody going to fight for it. You going to have to let people know, I’m not going to let you do this to me or do this to my people without . . . my opinion against it.” Even though she didn’t speak much during the workshops, Parks took copious notes during the sessions, detailing what each speaker said. On one page, she framed the question of gradualism versus immediacy, a key issue in school desegregation implementation. “Gradualism would ease shock of white minds. Psychological effect. Disadvantage—give opposition more time to build greater resistance. Prolong the change.” She then outlined how to formulate a social action program:
- Policy not to use persons with record of trouble with law. Give them something to do where they will not be in forefront of action.
- So people should be, as far as possible, economically independent. Not owe too many debts or borrow money from certain places.
In another section, she described how teachers lost their jobs if they worked for school desegregation. Parks was thus more than aware of the economic ramifications of being publicly identified as an advocate for desegregation. And then with a prescience she could not have imagined, she wrote, “Desegregation proves itself by being put in action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.” The point was to act and through that action, societal transformation would occur. Tellingly, Parks uses the term desegregation rather than integration—as many of her civil rights peers would—to signify that it was not a matter of having a bus seat or a school desk next to a white person but dismantling the apparatus of inequality.
Participants in the workshop were encouraged to contextualize the problems facing their communities within a global movement for human rights and to come up with concrete steps to create change locally. According to Horton, Parks was “the quietest participant” in the workshop. “If you judge by the conventional standards,” Horton observed, “she would have been the least promising probably. We don’t use conventional standards, so we had high hopes for her.” Despite her reticence, the visit to Highlander was a transformative one for Parks, who had grown increasingly weary of pressing for change with little result.
I was 42 years old, and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people. . . . I felt that I could express myself honestly without any repercussions or antagonistic attitudes from other people . . . it was hard to leave.
Highlander workshops always ended with a closing discussion called “Finding Your Way Back Home.” Clark asked participants what they planned to do once they returned home. “Rosa answered that question by saying that Montgomery was the cradle of the Confederacy,” Clark recalled, “that nothing would happen there because blacks wouldn’t stick together. But she promised to work with those kids, and to tell them that they had the right to belong to the NAACP . . . to do things like going through the Freedom Train.” Esau Jenkins recalled Parks referring to many in Montgomery as “complacent” and not likely to do anything bold. Many of the workshop participants agreed with her on the futility of trying to mount a mass movement in Montgomery. Parks worried about how blacks in Montgomery “wouldn’t stand together.” Horton could see how worn down Parks was. “We didn’t know what she would do, but we had hopes that this tired spirit of hers would get tired of being tired, that she would do something and she did.”
Parks found it difficult to return to Montgomery, “where you had to be smiling and polite no matter how rudely you were treated.” Because Mrs. Parks feared white retaliation for her participation in the workshop, Clark accompanied her to Atlanta and saw her onto the bus to Montgomery. Parks also insisted on being reimbursed for her travel in cash, fearing that a check from Highlander would draw harassment. A black teacher from Montgomery who also attended the workshop had not even told people at home where she was going, saying she was going somewhere else in Tennessee, for fear that she would lose her job if anyone found out.
“Rosa Parks was afraid for white people to know that she was as militant as she was,” Septima Clark recalled. Clark’s observation in many ways summed up one of the paradoxes of Parks’s character. Parks often covered up the radicalism of her beliefs and her actions. Her reticence was evident even at a place like Highlander, where she was still reluctant to talk about the Freedom Train visit to Montgomery. Nonetheless, while she was scared of it being discovered she went to Highlander, she still was willing to be listed in a press release that highlighted her attendance at the school desegregation workshop.
Parks looked to Clark and Ella Baker as role models as she sought to figure out how to be a woman activist when much of the visible leadership was made up of men and how to continue the struggle despite the vitriol of white resistance and the glacial pace of change. In spite of many years of political organizing, Parks still felt nervous, shy, and at times pessimistic about the potential for change. This process she went through is often missed in the romanticization of her bus stand as a spontaneous action without careful calibration. When Clark heard that Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus five months after returning from the workshop, she thought to herself, “‘Rosa? Rosa?’ She was so shy when she came to Highlander, but she got enough courage to do that.” Indeed, the popular view of Parks as either an accidental or angelic heroine misses the years of gathering courage, fortitude, and community, which then enabled her to refuse to give up her seat. To be able to understand how Parks could have said aloud in front of other political organizers that nothing would happen in Montgomery, return to her political work in the community, and then five months later refuse to get up, demonstrates the political will at her core. She might not believe that anything would happen in Montgomery, but that didn’t mean she would not try to demonstrate her opposition to the status quo.
About the Author
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneTheoharis and visit the Rosa Parks biography website.