The Center for Constitutional Rights has returned to the South. While we never stopped working in the region, we were without an office in the South for a number of years. Our new Southern Regional Office, known as CCR South, will allow us to deepen our commitment to liberatory movements that was forged 55 years ago when radical lawyers founded the organization to support the civil rights struggle in Mississippi and beyond.
CCR South is building infrastructure to offer legal training and support to the next generation of movement lawyers and advocates; help Southern partners connect, collaborate, and co-create; and amplify ongoing movement battles.
As we set up shop in the South, one of our first efforts is to partner with the Highlander Research and Education Center, the historic Tennessee social justice training school. We’re helping Highlander oppose the nomination of part of its original site to the National Register of Historic Places. Oppose? Shouldn’t this important site in the history of the civil rights movement be preserved? Yes, it should be, but not under the current terms of the nomination or by the current nominator, as explained by Highlander’s petition.
Founded in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School, Highlander has been a hub for multiracial, working-class movements across the South. In the 1930s and 40s Highlander was an organizing center for anti-racism and the Southern labor movement, standing up to not only Southern state governments and industry bosses, but also to federal New Deal policies that excluded Black workers. In the 1950s and 60s Highlander became an important civil rights training ground, holding workshops for thousands of organizers working across the South–from Rosa Parks before the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Ella Baker and many other activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
But, because of Highlander’s ongoing commitment to justice throughout its 90-year history, it has consistently been opposed by the forces of the status quo. In 1961, after a campaign of vilification led by white supremacists, the State of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and seized its land. The school re-chartered within days as the Highlander Research and Education Center to continue its crucial work (which continues under that banner today). In 1966, the Klan marched on Highlander, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window. In 2019, arsonists burned down one of Highlander’s buildings and left a white power symbol at the scene.
After confiscating Highlander’s land in 1961, Tennessee split it into parcels and auctioned it off. And now the Tennessee Preservation Trust (TPT) – an elite, white-led organization best known for its preservation of Civil War history and with no connection to Highlander’s history or movements for civil rights and Black freedom – is attempting to register one of the parcels as a historic site with the National Park Service.
The listing would allow TPT to profit from Highlander’s history and tell its version of Highlander’s story—all while Highlander still exists, and without even attempting to work with its staff. And if that were not enough, TPT has been seemingly financially and administratively unstable over the years, and has had its non-profit status revoked by the IRS.
Recognition in the National Register under TPT’s banner would be an incomplete and unrighteous preservation of Highlander’s history. That’s why the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with the Advancement Project and Crowell & Moring LLP, worked with Highlander to file a petition opposing this nomination. The full, accurate history of the Black and working-class freedom struggles in the South must be preserved — a role TPT is not fit to serve.
Our work with Highlander will be a model for our efforts across the South: Partnering with a historic, radical organization fighting to preserve its history and, through that preservation, expand its influence. Collaborating to plan legal challenges that supplement their larger strategy. Lightening their workload while helping set them on a path toward realizing their goals.
That, writ large, is the mission of CCR South: to collaborate with and support radical organizations working towards liberation alongside, and under the leadership of, Black, brown, indigenous, low- or no-income, and other historically marginalized communities across the South. We hope y'all will join us in this effort.
Emily Early is Associate Director of our Southern Regional Office
Jessica Vosburgh is a staff attorney working in our Southern Regional Office
Lachlan Athanasiou, a student at Penn Law School, is a 2022 Ella Baker summer intern