Vinson: Grundy played role in Civil Rights

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A current topic of hot debate is "House Bill 10," introduced by State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), to be argued when the Tennessee General Assembly meets. Regarding House Bill 10, "The Tennessean" newspaper stated: "Tennessee students wanting to graduate high school could soon be required to pass the same civics test administered to immigrants looking to become U.S. citizens." Reportedly, questions on the civics exam include: What is the supreme law of the land? What are the three branches of the federal government?
While many are pro House Bill 10, many are against it. Those against it argue that, given the high-tech world in which we live, high school educators shouldn't waste time teaching civics to students. Instead, educators should spend their time teaching math, science, advanced computer skills, etc.

While on the subject, allow me to share with you some vintage Tennessee civics. Myles Horton, white, was born in Savannah, Tenn., in 1905. Early on, he recognized the importance of working together as a collective unit in an attempt to solve problems that often resulted along ethnic-economic-social lines.

After studying at several universities, Horton traveled to Denmark to observe the Danish Folk School movement, "a populist education experiment that had developed in opposition to the lifelessness of traditional schools." Danish Folk Schools encouraged students to broaden their experience by analyzing important problems and actively participating in practical solutions.

Shifting gears . . .

Located between McMinnville and Chattanooga, Grundy County qualifies as true "Appalachian" country: a rugged, mountainous area full of wildlife; its residents, mostly white, conservative both in lifestyle and political leaning. In short, Grundy County is about the last place one would expect to find a liberal institution of learning that welcomed all races and all walks of life. However, based on his experience in Denmark, Myles Horton opened the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County in 1932.

Horton established Highlander "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, emphasizing "cultural values of the mountains." The only requirement to attend Highlander was the desire to learn and better one's self. In due time, Highlander became popular with Civil Rights activists. In July 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress from Montgomery, Ala., attended a workshop at Highlander Folk School. Back then, in the American South, blacks riding public buses had to sit in the rear.

Still, if all seats were filled on the bus, and a white boarded the bus, a black was supposed to give up his/ her seat to the white. Dec.1, 1955, riding a public bus in Montgomery, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested. The incident quickly became national news, and both blacks and whites refused to ride public buses! The spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott was an eloquent, black Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr.

November 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to enforce segregation on public buses in Alabama. The ruling was a major success for the Civil Rights Movement. Relatively unknown prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King would become the strongest voice ever for the Civil Rights Movement, reaching a crowning peak with his "I Have a Dream" speech, given to some 250,000 listeners at the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.

Tragically, that strong voice was forever silenced by a single bullet in Memphis, April 4, 1968. Regarding the brave, historic stand Parks took on that public bus, Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, she said she came about the necessary courage and moral fiber to do so by attending the workshop at the Highlander Folk School in July of the same year. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929.

His birthday is now a federal holiday, celebrated the first Monday after Jan. 15 every year. Stop and think: If Rosa Parks hadn't attended Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Martin Luther King Jr. might have become just another unknown Baptist minister instead of the national holiday he is today.

Some "Tennessee civics," that's all.

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Mike Vinson
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