The center, which was founded as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., in 1932, originally focused on organizing unemployed and working people and brought union organizers together for interracial workshops. But it soon became an incubator for the civil rights movement.
In the 1950s, it developed a literacy program that taught thousands of black people to read and write in an effort to help them register to vote.
In 1955, Ms. Parks attended a civil rights workshop at Highlander, just a few months before she refused to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott in protest of segregated seating. In 1957, with Ms. Parks in attendance, Dr. King gave closing remarks at a conference marking the Highlander school’s 25th anniversary.
The unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” also has ties to the Highlander center. The school’s music director learned an original version of the song from tobacco workers and taught it to Pete Seeger, whose adaptation spread around the country.
The school’s policies, theories and association with high-profile civil rights figures often drew the attention of the authorities. It was investigated for Communist ties in the late 1950s and later shut down in 1961 by the state of Tennessee for holding integrated classes, among other complaints.
The school reopened the next day as the Highlander Research and Education Center, according to the center’s website. It has been at its current campus in New Market since 1972.