Working from Within

The Pedagogical and Programmatic Elements of Education behind the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1969

Presented at the School of Social Work, University of Minnesota

Part of the legacy of people like Ella Baker and Septima Clark is a faith that ordinary people who learn to believe in themselves are capable of extraordinary acts, or better, of acts that seem extraordinary to us precisely because we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people - Charles Paine


Rosa Parks and Highlander


  • Participation in Highlander-like learning circle experiences.
  • Orientation to examining social movement from as many levels/registers as possible: personal, pedagogical, programmatic, and the broader movement context (ideological, societal, economic, etc.).
  • Relationship of pedagogical strategies to other critical pedagogy and civic youth work.

Research Questions

  1. What were the pedagogical and programmatic elements of educational strategies used to influence broad sociopolitical change in the Civil Rights movement?
  2. Is it useful to examine these educational strategies as an alternative model--inclusive and non-paternalistic--of social services? 
  3. What affect did the educational strategies of the Civil Rights movement have on the growing movement?

Why this topic?

  1. Educational strategies that include empowerment, developing a critical stance, and the embodiment of a democratic and inclusive ethos are really interesting to me.
  2. Young people participating in the Civil Rights movement were often treated very differently than young people at other historical moments. Why and how?
  3. These educational strategies took place as part of--and fundamental to--broad movements for social change. I wonder whether examining these strategies allows us to understand movement-building better today.


  • Wisconsin Historical Society Archives
    • Highlander Folk School Collection
    • Social Action Files
    • Robert S. Gabriner Papers
    • The King Center (Online)
    • Published polemics, research papers, essays
  • Secondary
    • (Auto)biographical accounts
    • Literature on broader historical context


  • Explore secondary sources on Civil Rights and Black Power movement.
  • Sorted through the Wisconsin Historical Archives searching for research on the pedagogical and programmatic elements of Highlander and the Citizenship Schools.



For the Highlander Folk School and Citizenship Schools trace:

  • Personal
  • Pedagogical
  • Programmatic
  • Movement

Hope eventually to continue this tracing through the Nation of Islam and Black Power movements.

Framework: Social Work

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

  • Settlement Houses remained segregated, could have lead integration actions.
  • Even Settlement Houses are often paternalistic, and rarely involved community members in research processes or shared decision-making.

Context: Societal

  • The Social Security Act (1935)
  • As World War II came to an end in 1945, a period of perceived national prosperity grew. However, this prosperity was deeply divided by race and economic status. 
  • The Highlander Folk School, founded in 1932, came into being during the New Deal and the decline of the Settlement House movement. 
  • Nascent Civil Rights Movement was being organized on many fronts, including the spark of Brown v Board in 1954.

Context: Highlander Folk School

  • Founded in 1932 in rural Appalachia by Myles Horton, a poor, white Appalachian who received some formal education.
  • Based primarily on observations and study of Scandinavian folk schools, with some influence from Settlement Houses.
  • Began doing work with laborers, turned attention to racial justice in late 40s.
  • A "school for problems", where everyday people's experiences were valued and workshops centered around people sharing their expertise.
  • Only integrated sleeping facility in the deep south at the time.


  • Embodiment of democratic principles and ethos, shared decision-making and discussion strategies.
  • Focused on everyday problems and uninterested in pure abstraction.
  • Everyone is a teacher and learner.
  • Based on storytelling and learning from each other's experiences.
  • Residential workshop model meant living, eating, and working together in integrated space were also potential learning experiences.


  • Adult and youth educational programs
  • Built around: the needs of everyday people, crises in the social order, working at people's and institution's edges, and experimenting to make change.
  • 1 - 4 week residential workshops, recruited through Highlander's networks and attended by poor people throughout the South. Highlander paid transportation and room and board. Workshops were free. 
  • Workshops planned by staff, but adapted to people's experiences and desires as workshop progressed.

Highlander Workshop

Context: Citizenship Schools

  • Esau Jenkins from John's Island, South Carolina.
  • Hoping to prepare people to pass citizenship exams.
  • Began as a clandestine operation in the back of a grocery store.
  • Teacher is Bernice Robinson, a hair dresser who was literate, but had not had teaching experience.


  • Curriculum is embedded in everyday needs and contexts of participants.
  • Workbooks are to be adapted by local teachers to be appropriate to context (including local laws).
  • About citizenship, but also about navigating politics and racism of local area.
  • Learning is based in conversations, centered on interests of participants.
  • Conversations about citizenship beyond voting rights.

Citizenship Workbook


  • Citizenship School is “an adult school for people who need to learn the basic skills and information which will help them in registering and voting”. 
  • Classes numbered between 25 and 35 students, typically spanning over an area of one or two counties. 
  • The classes met two hours an evening, two evenings a week, approximately three months a year. 
  • Held in privately owned spaces: homes, businesses, or churches, but sometimes were in school buildings or other public spaces as well. 
  • Teachers were citizens local to the community, working on a voluntary basis.


Citizenship School Agenda


  • Classes operated in a community during the three least busy months of the year.
  • During off times, Citizenship School organizers and participants helped facilitate community action activities.
  • Nearly 1,000 schools in operation at their peak.
  • Workshops for teachers and supervisors held at Highlander, typically five days, training materials, trainings, and discussions.

Citizenship School Enrollment

Citizenship School Teacher Training

Dorchester Teacher Training, SCLC, Refinement by Fire by R. Elizabeth Johns


  • Rethink what's included in social work, imagine social work strategies that are less paternalistic and are connected to / influencing broader social movements.
  • Include Highlander Folk School and Citizenship Schools in history of social services in the United States.
  • Examine importance of educational strategies to broad and deep success of social movements.


  • Wanted to cover the personal elements of these strategies, but couldn't find enough information in the archives alone.
  • Wanted to cover the Freedom Schools and more northern educational strategies of the Nation of Islam, SNCC, and Black Panther Party.

Working from Within The Personal, Pedagogical, and Programmatic Elements of Education behind the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1969

By Alex Fink

Working from Within The Personal, Pedagogical, and Programmatic Elements of Education behind the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1969

Presentation given to Historical Research Seminar, May 6, 2014, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota. Title: Working from Within The Personal, Pedagogical, and Programmatic Elements of Education behind the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1969

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