The Extraordinary Myles Horton
Interview by Ellen Gould and Murray Dobbin
Myles Horton is the founder of the Highlander Folk School, a centre
for leadership training in Tennessee. The Highlander, founded fifty–five
years ago, trains organizers for unions, civil rights organizations
and local citizens’ groups. In this article, Ellen Gould and Murray
Dobbin talk to Horton to find out what his experience has taught
him about organizing for social change.
Question: What in your six decades of experience have you
found motivates people to get involved in social change?
Myles Horton: Everyone I’ve worked with has had in common
a recognized need to solve a problem in a situation where they were
trying to do something that they couldn’t do. They have had a goal
but were frustrated in achieving it.
If they get some help, that allows them to proceed, to understand
and analyze their experience. But it’s still their own experience
that is the motivating factor and not the help they receive.
If the goal isn’t challenging enough that people are willing to
struggle to achieve it, then there’s no basis for motivation.
Personal motivation is less long–range and sustaining than group
motivation, despite the fact that most of our education focuses
on the individual.
Question: Do you think the goal and the motivation always
have to be based on an economic problem?
M.H.: Oh, no, no. I think that it is a terrible mistake
to assume that people’s self–interest and group interests are only
economic. When it comes down to it, if you don’t have enough to
eat to live, then you have a problem. Ultimately there is an economic
base. But most problems are not that closely associated with economics.
People have real values.
I was organizing textile workers back in the thirties in South Carolina.
They were some of the lowest paid workers in the country. I was
talking to them about their families, about the future of their
children, about their responsibilities as citizens.
Some of the other organizers said, “Talk to them about economics,
talk to them about wages. That’s all they’re interested in.”
But I found that that wasn’t true at all. I found that people have
a wide range of interests and too often organizers limit the people
they are working with to their own value system.
I think workers are very often way ahead of organizers in terms
of the way they think about life.
Question: What kinds of people do you think are important
to work with?
M.H.: Everybody’s worth working with, in the sense that
all human beings have worth. But if you are going to carry on an
educational program, you can’t do mass education. You have to be
Our approach is to select grass–roots or emerging leaders, people
who are very close to the rank and file in a union or a community.
They may not be the official leaders but they have the potential
of serving the interests of the people.
Question: When you’re looking at potential leadership in
groups, what kinds of groups are you looking at?
M.H.: We look for groups that have the potential for social
change. Now how do you tell if a group has this potential? If it’s
a very limited reform they’re seeing that once it’s achieved, people
are no longer interested the group doesn’t have much potential for
developing leadership or social change.
But if it’s a tough problem, requiring an element of structural
change and some time to solve, then people have to be dedicated
over the long run and you have a beginning. Now if it’s one that
has the potential of spreading out, solving one problem and then
moving on to others, so the goal is beyond that immediate step,
then that’s the group you work with.
It’s not the worst situations, not where people have suffered most.
That’s not the criterion. That’s a humanitarian, philanthropic
problem. We’re interested in radical social change.
Question: How have you helped people to build analyses of
M.H.: First you start out with their problem, and you help
people analyze around that problem. If they don’t learn from their
own experience they aren’t going to learn from yours. Anybody who
thinks you can come in from the top with theories and pass it on
to people doesn’t understand how people learn. In analyzing
their own experience, people enlarge it so the analysis becomes
part of their experience, not foreign to it.
People need to realize that they are part of the bigger world and
at the same time they have to work where they are.
You start with where people are first and then it reaches out from
there. The goal doesn’t have to be limited at all but the steps
have to be in conformity with the situation and the capacities and
the development of the people.
Question: How do you see people developing a long term vision
and not getting fixated on the immediate problem?
M.H.: Too many organizers think that groups can’t deal with
anything other than a tiny, easy problem and so they take adults,
poor people who have struggled and survived for years, and treat
them like little children, as though they can’t deal with tough
problems or take on challenges.
If people have the information, and it’s an outgrowth of their experience,
then there’s no limit on what people can think about. Sometimes
in asking questions and helping people analyze their experience
you’ll be surprised at the startling statements that come out of
people about what their interests are.
Don’t whittle them down to your size but try to build up your own
expectations to equal theirs. Try to help them understand that they
have within themselves experience if they’ll only learn how to analyze
and use it in starting out on the road to achieving their goals.
You have to be careful not to get beyond their experience, but not
to assume that their experience is not expandable.
Question: In looking back over decades of organizing work,
can you generalize about what kinds of activities have generated
M.H.: The one thing I’ve learned about that is that people
shouldn’t be encouraged to do things that they don’t have the means
or the troops for just because they sound good.
Take lobbying. In lobbying, you’re dealing with multinational corporations
and all kinds of special interests that have their lobbies. Just
because lobbying is a good thing doesn’t mean you can compete with
other lobbyists. They’ve got money and all you got is people. So
you’ve got to stop and think about what you do have rather than
what you don’t have.
So that means that you need to use some kind of creative mass action.
Ideas that aren’t translated into action seldom have any kind of
relevance in terms of change.
Action just can’t be conventional action where you do the things
that have been done over and over. You have to be creative about
It seems to me, looking at the history during my lifetime, that
the only thing you can say with assurance has made a difference
has been civil disobedience.
In the early days of the labour movement, we had to defy all the
laws because there were laws against organizing and meetings and
picket lines. In the civil rights movement, if we hadn’t defied
the law we would never have gotten anywhere. In the mass demonstrations
against the war in Vietnam, where people said,“No, we’re not
going to be stopped. We’re going to go to jail,” they were
the things that got results.
Reprinted from Briarpatch’s February 1988 issue. Briarpatch
is published ten times a year. A one year subscription costs $19.00.
Write: Briarpatch, 2138 McIntyre Street, Regina, SK S4P 2R7.
Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 12, Number 1, Fall 1988.