Monteagle’s historic Highlander Folk School contributed to the Civil Rights movement, fought segregation and the rights of workers through education. Civil Rights activists such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are associated with the school.
Yet the school also felt the backlash of attacks that ranged from alleged ties to communism that resulted in an FBI investigation to a homegrown plot in the that, had it succeeded, would have destroyed the school and killed numerous students and staff.
According the Highlander Folk School website, the school was first established in 1932 in Monteagle by Myles Horton and Don West. About a decade after its founding, the school shifted its focus to fighting segregation in labor movements. The fully integrated workshops didn’t happen until 1944 “because of the fear that there would be backlash from the local community and resistance from the unions. Opposition leaders also began campaigns to name Highlander a communist school and to work toward closing their doors for good,” the site says.
A group of locals also decided to take the matter into their own hands. According to a memo in the FBI’s extensive files on the school, three conspirators were angry after reading in the paper accounts that the school was holding integrated classes.
On Jan. 9, 1958, the individuals whose names are redacted allegedly broke into the County Rock Quarry located in the Penile Community, near where Nissan is currently located in Decherd.
The quarry reported two full cases and one partial case of dynamite stolen. One case of dynamite contains about 40 sticks of dynamite. Historic farmer’s handbook by DuPont said that one to three sticks should be used to uproot a tree stump.
The incident was detailed in a FBI memo at the time to then-Director J. Edgar Hoover by the Special Agent in Charge of the Knoxville office, elsewhere identified as W.A. Murphy. The three were charged with house breaking, larceny and possession of dynamite by a special session of the Franklin County Grand Jury on Jan. 15 and to be tried in February, 1958.
The individuals had read that several African Americans were “mixed with whites” and the report refers to a redacted earlier portion of text that lists another grievance. The conspirators felt the matters should have gathered more public attention.
About the same time, hearings were being held as to whether the school was connected to communism.
The conspirators had packed the explosives into a 10 gallon milk can, but the bomb was found by authorities before it could be used against the school. No additional information is listed concerning the investigation or how the suspects were caught.
The files note an additional bomb threat made by a male subject with a rough, mad voice, that claimed when “I come back from Georgia, it will be morning and we will get rid of the school, blow it off the face of the Earth,” a memo dated March 19, 1959 said.
For its part the Tennessean, had harassed the school too. In 1939, the paper sent a reporter undercover to the school posing as a teacher, the school’s website says. The resulting six part series accuses the school of spreading communism across the South.
The state supreme court closed the school by revoking its charter in 1961. The school reopened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center. From 1961-1971, it was based in Knoxville, and in 1972 it moved to its current location near New Market, Tenn.