Fabled Highlander Center burned to the ground by arsonists in Tennessee…

Firefighters struggle to control the flames as the Highlander Center’s main office building burns to the ground in New Market, TN, on March 29th of this year. While no one was injured in the blaze, many invaluable historical records were lost. White supremacist graffiti spray-painted in the parking lot left little doubt as to who carried out the terrorist attack on the nearly century-old center, a unique place of popular education, organizing, and leadership development that played a critical role in the labor movement of the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and the 21st century climate movement.

White supremacist symbols spray-painted at the site point to terroristic motive for attack…

Please donate today to help re-build unique, century-old symbol of American human rights movement.

Unless you have made the conscious decision to stop following the news altogether – a not entirely unreasonable decision these days, given the overall flow of current events – you are aware of the tragic news out of Paris of the fire that destroyed large parts of the 800-year old Notre Dame Cathedral.  An impossibly beautiful and irreplaceable piece of humankind’s collective history was lost in that fire, and though, thankfully, the most recent assessments appear to be more optimistic than the initial damage reports, the news hit like a gut-punch.  Throughout France and around much of the world, millions of people were struck with an emotional mix of shock, sadness, and disbelief. 

A different fire in recent days caused countless people in this country, and many beyond our borders as well, to experience that same unwelcome mix of emotions – with a strong dose of anger added in – thanks to what appears to be a hate crime in the form of arson.  The Highlander Center, an ally and partner of the CIW from the earliest days of our organizing 25 years ago and a unique force for social justice for nearly a century, was burned to the ground last month by criminals who signed their handiwork with a symbol identified with a resurgent, global movement of white supremacists. 

Rosa Parks (second from left) and Dr. King (second from right) attend a gathering at the Highlander Center in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Here is the news, from The Nation:

News of the March 29 arson attack on the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, shocked and angered progressives across the country. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the blaze destroyed Highlander’s main office building, along with valuable organizational records and historic documents that had not been archived at the University of Wisconsin and other repositories. Yet, for the many familiar with its storied history of movement-building, research, radical education, and cultural work, the devastation goes much deeper than property loss. It’s as if a sanctuary was violated.

And violated it was. Making crystal clear their terrorist intention, the attackers left their mark on the parking lot by spray-painting a symbol derived from the fascist Romanian Iron Guard during the 1930s that is commonly used by white supremacists. The same symbol was painted on one of the guns used in the recent murderous attack on two mosques in New Zealand, and scrawled alongside swastikas on the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus in November.

The attack on Highlander is the latest in a rising wave of racist terror targeting black, brown, and indigenous communities, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and gender non-conforming folks. For Highlander’s co-executive directors, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and the Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, the attack was disheartening, frustrating, and terrifying, but hardly surprising. “Because of our history,” they wrote in a recent press release, “we are not surprised that this space, one where marginalized people working across sectors, geographies, and identities, show up consistently, has been repeatedly targeted over our 87 years of existence”…. read more 

Farmworkers from Immokalee have long been counted among that number of marginalized groups that have sought out the Highlander Center for its support, its partnership, and its unparalleled historical knowledge of this country’s popular movements for economic and social justice.

A bit of CIW history: Way back when, in the early 1990s, when farmworkers in Immokalee first started organizing, we scoured the landscape here in the US for resources in the field of Popular Education, the approach to community education and organization developed and practiced throughout Latin America but not widely known in this country.  Many of the workers who co-founded the CIW were intimately familiar with the methodology of Popular Education; indeed, many of the CIW’s early leaders had been trained in the approach and employed it in organizing their communities back home before emigrating to the US.  And so as we began to organize in Immokalee, we sought help in adapting the Latin American approach to Popular Education to the unique circumstances of the migrant farmworker community here in the US, a community divided by language, nationality, and race; a community facing unimaginable poverty and abuse; a community deeply atomized and always on the move; a community that is not, in fact, a community in the traditional sense, but more a labor reserve of immigrants deeply unfamiliar with their new surroundings and unfamiliar with each other. 

And the Highlander Center was there for us.  Highlander was there not only as the leading US resource on the question of Popular Education, but, for all intents and purposes, the only US resource on that question.  And what we found out as we got to know Highlander and its remarkable staff is that, for a small, poor community in the rural south looking to organize for social and economic justice, there was simply no better place for finding the insight, the support, and the space you need to reflect and build your own vision of change than the Highlander Center and its ever-welcoming circle of rocking chairs overlooking the mountains outside New Market, Tennessee.  In that space, a 25-year friendship was born.

The CIW’s Silvia Perez (right) and Lupe Gonzalo pictured during a recent meeting in the circle of rocking chairs at the heart of the CIW’s community center in Immokalee, a visual quote immediately recognizable to those familiar with both Highlander and the CIW.

That’s why, just as they stood with us when we needed help to get off the ground a quarter century ago, we are standing with the Highlander Center today in their time of need as they start to pick up the pieces and build the center again from the ashes in the wake of this heinous crime.  As Highlanders’ co-directors noted in the statement following the fire, this is not the first such cowardly attack the center has faced.  Indeed, as they put it, Highlander “has been repeatedly targeted over [its] 87 years of existence.”  But while that perspective might make it easier to see past the hate and anger of the moment and focus on the Center’s unwavering mission of advancing human rights and dignity, it does not make the task of rebuilding any easier.  

So we are asking the Fair Food Nation to do its part to help the Highlander Center get back on its feet again.  Please honor the 25-year friendship between our two organizations with your donation the the Highlander Center today.  You can visit the Highlander website and donate here

Thank you.