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Highlander Research and Education Center celebrates 90 Years of fighting for social justice

For nine decades, the Highlander Center has worked for social justice — overcoming obstacles of many kinds along the way.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Highlander Research and Education Center is 90 years old. To celebrate, the center marked a key site in East Tennessee that trained several leaders of the Civil Rights Era. A celebration is set for the new location in New Market. 

The Highlander Center Began its early days in Knoxville. It was torn down by urban renewal policies that decimated several Black communities in the city, and then they moved to Grundy County. 

Now they are in New Market, continuing the legacy of civil rights leaders and training people in ways they can improve their communities. There, they faced adversity of several kinds — including hate groups. A symbol of a white supremacy group was found at the center after a fire totally destroyed a building there.

"Our regular people deserve to know that Highlander is a home for them, for whatever they need, around whatever issue that's keeping them up at night,” said Ash-lee Woodard Henderson. 

Henderson is the first Black woman to serve as co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, a place where freedom fighters come to unite. 

"And debated each other and learn from each other and sang songs and ate dinner and drink drinks and had dances. You know, all sorts of stuff," she said. 

The Highlander Center has been around since 1932, catalyzing grassroots organizations in southern Appalachia. 

"Where people can dream together,  people can figure out how to build movements with one another," said Allyn Maxfield-Steel, a Co-executive Director for the Highlander Center. 

In the 1960s, leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks used the Highlander Center during the Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

"We've thrived, right in part because of that legacy they left us," said a leader of the center. 

This year's celebration of 90 years is a reminder to keep legacies alive and plan for future generations. 

"And dream and have a vision about what the next ten years could look like for us," they said. "I think our 90th celebration will be beautiful and hope-filled and inspiring." 

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