On March 29, the administrative building of the Highlander Center, a Tennessee-based center for social justice, civil rights, and labor organizing for 87 years, burned down in a suspected act of arson. Symbols of the Romanian Iron Guard—frequently used by white nationalist and supremacist groups in this country—were spray painted on the parking lot.
“For the many familiar with [the Highlander Center’s] 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,” Robin D.G. Kelley and Makani Themba wrote last week in the Nation, in a piece published “Why the Highlander Attack Matters.”
The Real News Network’s Marc Steiner spoke to Themba, who is also a member of TRNN’s board, about what needs to be done to protect these organizing spaces going forward. “It’s really an act of courage for folks to do this work. It’s an institution that has been targeted over the years,” said Themba.
The Highlander Center’s organizing focus, particularly during the civil rights movement–its students have included Martin Luther King Jr, Septima Clark, and Rosa Parks–has provoked both federal and state backlash, and the school has faced closure more than once. “Highlander is just a safe space and a hub for movements here in the U.S., especially in the South, but also internationally,” Themba said. “And so it’s one of the few spaces that we on the left and as progressives hold and have in terms of the land, the buildings, and the property.” The school has also been involved in training activists and leaders in climate justice, immigrant rights, and Appalachian health and labor issues.
Before addressing the evidence that this was likely a white supremacist attack, Themba noted that there is an ongoing investigation into the fire and her position is not the official position of the Highlander Center.
“As someone who lives in Mississippi and lives in the South I want to be clear that yes, it’s true that these attacks are ramping up,” Themba said. “And it’s not an isolated incident.”
Steiner compared the current moment of racial terror to the Reconstruction period, when a distinct racist backlash followed the new freedom of African Americans, and suggested that under Donald Trump’s presidency the potential for violence has increased.
“My first thought was this could be a major escalation we’re seeing in our country, not just in Highlander,” Steiner said. “And I think we as progressives, especially people who are trying to build a society are actually aware of this, and not just take it as if we can kind of sit back and relax. I mean, this is, there are direct attacks coming our way.”
“There is an increase in how the right wing, particularly folks who identify as white supremacists, are operating here in the U.S. and globally,” said Themba.
Earlier this week, a suspect in a planned arson attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was arrested. There has also been an uptick in shootings at mosques and in black churches, said Themba.
There’s just a wave and these folks who are operating in a way where they are hoping to strike fear in us, to keep us from doing our work to try to establish this sort of white patriarchal hierarchy,” she said. “We should have been thinking about this. Security is going to be increasingly important for our movements,” she said.
She said moments like these create the opportunity to build solidarity.
“Now it’s a time to be vigilant to love each other and support each other and keep each other safe in turbulent times,” Themba said. “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—strategies to build a new world.”
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. For 87 years in the heart of the South, the Highlander Center has been training and organizing in the civil rights, labor, and justice struggles of this country. It was the center of C.I.O. organizing with sharecroppers in the 1930s, a center of training civil rights workers in the 60s for SNCC, and organizing climate change activists in this century. People like Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and many others have been part of Highlander. Over the decades, state and federal authorities have tried to close the Center. Now the attack seems to have escalated. A few weeks go on March 29th, arsonists burned down the Highlander’s main house and left spray-painted symbols of the fascist Romanian Iron Guard, a symbol used by many white nationalist and supremacist groups in this country. Is this just an isolated incident— an attack like that? Or, are we witnessing an escalation of violence against movements and activists. The Nation featured an article on the arson attack by Robin D. G. Kelly, who wrote Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, and Makani Themba, Chief Strategist at the Higher Ground Change Strategies and author of Fair Game: A Strategy Guide for Racial Justice Communications in the Obama Era. We’re joined now by Makani Themba. Makani, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
MAKANI THEMBA Thank you, Marc. It’s always good to be here at The Real News.
MARC STEINER So just for our viewers who don’t really know the Highlander Center, talk about why this is so significant and why the two of you wrote this piece on this attack on the Highlander Center.
MAKANI THEMBA First of all, Highlander, like you said, an 87-year-old institution. But it’s not just about its history, as you talked about— its storied history in civil rights, its storied history in trade unionism in the South, its work in Appalachia— but it’s really also about its contemporary impact. Highlander has been at the center of so many important movements. [The] media justice movement actually was birthed at Highlander. The first media justice summit, language justice work, and immigrant rights organizations, as you said climate justice— Highlander is just a safe space and a hub for movements here in the U.S., especially in the South but also internationally. And so, it’s one of the few spaces that we on the Left and as progressives, hold and have in terms of the land, the buildings, and the property. One of the things I just want to say, it’s important to clarify is that our administrative building is what was burned. But there are still a lot of buildings, properties, archives, things that are really important and main for Highlander that are still standing.
MARC STEINER A lot was lost in this fire and I wonder what you think this means in a larger sense. People can look at this and go this is an isolated incident. It’s just a bunch of crazy right-wingers and racists that attacked this Highlander Center, but this could be something much more significant, given the power of where that center is, and what this might portend about what we’re about to have to face in this country.
MAKANI THEMBA Well as someone who lives in Mississippi and lives in the South, I want to be clear that it’s true that these attacks are ramping up, but it’s not an isolated incident. And one thing I also want to be clear is that there is an investigation underway around the arson. Even though the symbol is spray-painted, it seems from the early indications that it was arson. That investigation is still ongoing, so I want to be clear that we don’t have definitive answers at this point, but this is what many of us think. This is not an official Highlander position. I want to make that clear. This arson is still under investigation. Having said that, there hasn’t really been that much of a let up in terms of attacks. Highlander, unfortunately, and its staff— it’s really an act of courage for folks to do this work. It’s an institution that has been targeted over the years, so I think that’s important to say. And also, acknowledge that there is an increase in how the right wing, particularly folks who identify as white supremacists, are operating here in the U.S. and globally and that we need to be thinking about this. We should have been thinking about this. Security is going to be increasingly important for our movements. You probably know about the attempted attack even on St. Patrick’s Cathedral that was thwarted yesterday. So it’s not even just about left institutions that are under attack. There is a step up around how these militant, right-wing cells are operating to make a name, to strike fear and terror in folks who are doing even what one might call “progressive to liberal work,” and that we really need to pay attention to these things. The attack on Highlander definitely is not isolated. There are other institutions that have been under attack— mosques, temples, there’s just a wave. And these folks who are operating in a way where they are hoping to strike fear in us, to keep us from doing our work, to try to establish this sort of white, patriarchal hierarchy. There’s many, many, many of us who are in their sights. It’s not just about Highlander or even left institutions. There’s many of us at risk.
MARC STEINER One of the things I think about when I read your article and saw that this happened, when I look at American history, when I think of 1877 and what led up to 1877 and the end of Reconstruction, and the violence that took place then and the violence that took place against the Back community for those 90 years after that in a very direct way— obviously it has not stopped completely— but when you look at that and you also look at the history of our world and how violence plays into so much of struggles for justice in this world, when I read this, my first thought was this could be a major escalation we’re witnessing in our country. Not just Highlander, but more. I think we as progressives, especially people who are trying to build a new society here, have to be really aware of this and not just take it as if we can sit back and go relax. I mean, there are direct attacks coming our way.
MAKANI THEMBA Well I think that’s true. And I think that our best security is each other. So the question is not so much like, yes this is happening. Like I said, I live in Mississippi where during Reconstruction, Mississippi had the most radical, most progressive state constitution in the country. And then, once the federally supported war against the actual state took place and Reconstruction and all of the folks who were elected were displaced and many murdered, we had the Mississippi that we’ve had for so long, of today. Of course lots of work happening here to change that and resistance is everywhere, but this is an issue. And so, we have to really think about how do we circle and support each other? How are we aware? How do we engage in solidarity? How do we say, “not here?” In some ways, the attack on Highlander brought attention to the issue, but before that people were being shot and killed in mosques. Before that, people were rolling into Black churches and shooting people. So I think to say that because it happened to Highlander, now it’s an issue would be ahistorical and wrong and disconnected from all of our people that we need to be in solidarity with. We’ve got to pay attention to all of this. We’ve got to care for all of our folk. We’ve got to look out for each other and really let these folks know that we’re not standing for it.
MARC STEINER Makani, I think that at the end of your piece, you quoted the Co-director of the Highlander Institute, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson. Let me just read what she said for our viewers and a quick comment…
MAKANI THEMBA Yeah and it was Ash-Lee and Allen who said it together, both of the Co-directors.
MARC STEINER They both did it. I’m sorry. Yes. “This is a time for building our power. Now is a time to be vigilant, to love each other, to support each other, and 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.” That to me is a very powerful, important statement built out of power and love.
MAKANI THEMBA It is the truth. It is powerful and that’s one of the other reasons why Highlander is so important, because of our leadership too. We have people who are committed and courageous and stand even in the face of threats like this. And this is really what we’ve had to do in this country for the whole time— at least people like me who have been here. To resist and to dream and to work toward a new world, is an act of courage. And that really hasn’t changed. And maybe there’s those of us who have been lulled to sleep by what we don’t know about attacks, but I think one of the gifts of living in a place like Mississippi is that you never get to go to sleep.
MARC STEINER [laughter] Right. Well, Makani Themba, thank you so much for your time once again here at The Real News. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. And thank you for the article. Take care.
MAKANI THEMBA Always. Thank you so much and thank you for The Real News.
MARC STEINER Thank you. And I’m Mark Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all so much for watching. Take care.