Martin Luther King and Adult Education

Martin Luther King and Adult Education

Martin Luther King and Adult Education

Fri, Jan 15th, 2016

Brian Desmond, Léargas Communications Officer

Brian Desmond, Léargas Communications Officer

What do adult education and Martin Luther King have in common? Find out in this post, where–to commemorate Martin Luther King Day–Léargas Communications Officer Brian Desmond looks at the role that adult education played in the Civil Rights Movement.  For more information on the adult education programmes Léargas manages visit our EPALE and Erasmus+ Adult Education pages.

‘In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.’  Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King elicited, to a world of segregation, the inalienable truth of its connectedness. The Civil Rights movement he led forged an alternative path for the world, predicated on the ideals of equality, non-violence and social justice; a world where freedom, dignity and human rights are no longer the preserve of one group of people but of all.

This year on MLK Day–as we remember Martin Luther King’s struggle
to the-victors-gym-blog-martin-luther-king-day“Let Freedom Ring”–we can recall this idea of inter-relatedness with regard to adult education. In a real sense the social justice movement that overcame segregation in the southern states of America in the 1960s was inextricably linked with the adult educators and adult learners of that era and none more so than those of the Highlander Folk School.

Highlander Folk School

Myles Horton founded Highlander in the mountains of Tennessee in 1932. The area was one of the poorest Appalachian counties in the South and was an area dominated by powerful coal interests. Horton grew up witnessing the poverty of workers in the region and was committed to forging a more equal society there. He visited Denmark and stayed there for a time, learning more about Bishop Grundtvig’s Folk High Schools and their ‘contribution to greater economic and social democracy in Denmark’ (Horton & Kohl,1998). During this time he developed plans for an adult education centre for the Appalachians.


‘One of the most important elements of Highlander pedagogy is the recognition that the best teachers of poor and working people are the people themselves. Rather than bringing in “experts” as resource people, Highlander brings people together, developing a circle of learners who share the same problems. Together people share their experiences, analyse their problems and learn how to work toward basic changes in society. The goal is not reform or adjustment to an unjust society but the transformation of society.’ (Horton & Kohl, 1998).

Citizenship Schools

It was here that the Citizenship Schools of the Civil Rights Movement were born. Myles Horton, Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark were some of the contributors to the idea of a literacy programme that not only helped people to read and write but also taught them the power of their vote in bringing about social change. Bernice Robinson, the first ‘teacher’ of a Citizenship School, was armed with nothing more than the UN Declaration of Human Rights. She began her first class saying ‘I am not a teacher. We are here to learn together.You’re going to teach me as much as I’m going to teach you’ (Horton & Kohl, 1998). Bernice taught the students by listening to their stories and then recording them for them. They learned to read by reading back their own stories. They graduated when they registered to vote.

Myles Horton Highlander

This Citizenship Schools programme was taken on by Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and rolled out across the South. It is estimated that more than one hundred thousand people were reached by it. In the end many people outside of the Folk School were inspired to educate each other: to be co-learners and co-creators of a more equitable world.

People learning together

Myles Horton was adamant that it was the people, learning together, who brought about a seismic shift in the social order. But the role that Adult Education played in the Civil Rights Movement should never be underestimated. Its philosophy was infused with the belief that ‘I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be’. It marched alongside the struggle for freedom, with encouragement and in solidarity. It provided important transformative spaces and workshops for people like Rosa Parks, Septima Clark and Martin Luther King to organise their community for a better world. It embodied perfectly the interrelated structure of reality of which Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently.

the long HaulVery soon after the SCLC took over the Citizenship Schools programme, the State of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated the school (Horton & Kohl, 1998). As the sheriff padlocked the doors Myles Horton watched on smiling and told the sheriff simply: “You can padlock a building but you can’t padlock an idea”. On a day like today when we commemorate the great Martin Luther King, we can remember how transformative and powerful one idea can be.

Highlander continues to this day as the Highlander Research and Education Center. You can learn more about Myles Horton in his autobiography or by watching the interview below:



  • Horton, Myles & Kohl, Judith (1998) “The Long Haul: an autobiography”, Teacher’s College Press, New York
  • King, Martin Luther (1963) “Strength to Love”, Collins, Glasgow

Have you examples of adult education bringing changes to you or your community? We welcome suggestions and contributions to ‘Insights’ at