A social justice center located in New Market, Tennessee, that once hosted civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. And Rosa Parks burnt to the ground on Friday. A white power symbol was found on the site after the blaze was extinguished.
Officials have confirmed that the symbol is connected to the white power movement, but did not state what the symbol was. The symbol was spray- painted on the parking lot connected to the center’s main office.
Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire.
“While we don’t know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” a representative from Highlander said. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.”
The Highlander Center is located approximately 30 minutes from Knoxville. The center played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement by helping to organize the Montgomery, Alabama boycotts. The center also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Many iconic civil rights leaders and activists including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Peter Seeger attended training events that the Highlander Center hosted.
“Rosa Parks not only trained here but served on our board of directors for years. Martin Luther King Jr. was here, so many amazing folks that people think of that were bastions of the labor movement, of the civil rights movement,” shared Ash-Lee Woodward Henderson the co-executive director of the Highland Center.
The Highlander Center was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, Don West and Jim Dombrowski. It was originally the Highlander Folk School. It was built to serve as an adult education center for community members that were involved in the economic and social justice movements. The center’s goal was to provide education and support to poor working people that were fighting economic injustice, environmental destruction, poverty, and prejudice.
According to the Highlander Center’s Facebook page, “the founding principle and guiding philosophy of Highlander is that the answers to the problems facing society lie in the experiences of ordinary people. Those experiences, so often belittled and denigrated in our society, are the keys to grassroots power.
Today, that philosophy is reflected in the educational programs and services offered by the 21st-century Highlander Center. Highlander serves Appalachia and the South with programs designed to build strong and successful social-change activism and community organizing led by the people who suffer most from the injustices of society. Highlander helps activists to become more effective community educators and organizers, informed about the important issues driving conditions in communities today”
On Tuesday a spokesperson for the Highlander Center called for the community to stay awake.
“Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times. Now is not the time to dismiss how scary things are, which makes it even more important to have concrete assessments of concrete conditions, and sophisticated strategies to build a new world,” the statement read.
Decades of documents, memorabilia, and speeches that were stored in the center’s main office were all destroyed in the fire. These items were irreplaceable.
Officials at the Jefferson County Sherriff’s Office stated on Saturday that investigators were working closely with state bomb and arson agents to determine the exact cause of the fire.
“We are investigating a symbol that was painted in the parking area of the office to see if it has any affiliation to any individual or group,” the sheriff’s office said.
The blaze at the Highlander Center occurred just one day after the Oklahoma Democratic Party headquarters and the Chickasaw Nation’s office were broken into and vandalized. Both offices were spray-painted with racist graffiti including swastikas It is unknown at this time if all of the events are connected.
A spokesperson for the Highlander noted that in recent years the white power movement has grown to be more visible. However, the Highlander center said that despite those harsh realities, “the southern freedom movement is alive and well.”
“Our folks are winning campaigns. They’re organizing and base building,” the center said. “People are fighting for progressive policies and using direct action to hold people in power accountable.”
Despite this heartbreaking incident, the Highlander has insured the community that it will continue to serve as a sacred place and move forward to be stronger than before.
“That movement home, that place where strategy is developed, that place where principled struggle happens, that place that accompanies movement, that place that incubates radical work, and that place that demands transformative justice.”