Building Democracy at Highlander Center
Molly Lynn Watt

Mine is a story about how racism towers over all of us, even when we believe we are simply going about living our lives.

The Southern focus of my story takes place in 1963 when I was 25 years old, married with two little girls, one in diapers and one lonesome for her nursery school far away in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Traveling south in two vans and one VW bug, we were part of an international, inter-racial group from the Putney Graduate School in Vermont on the road for three months. We were interviewing people involved in leading projects and movements to understand some big ideas of what democracy could do to better lives of ordinary folks.

One of our stops, after visiting the federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), was Highlander Research and Education Center (HREC), a small decentralized movement housed in the home of its founder, Miles Horton.

We were weary from travel, discouraged about democracy's reach. We'd eaten at cafes, then learned they were firebombed because they'd served [out integrated group]. At night people who had offered hospitality in their homes withdrew invitations for vague, yet more and more transparent, reasons. Motels were simply full at the ask. Our family of four appeared white, despite Mohawk ancestors claimed by my husband, but we had Yankee accents and inter-racial travel companions. At first glance we were seen as outside-agitators. Pick-up trucks targeted our Massachusetts license plate and foreign-manufactured VW and nudged our VW bug off the highways and into ditches.

Our study trip South, became a harrowing unofficial freedom ride, we learned more about what democracy could not do than what it could do for individual citizens.

When we landed at the Highlander office — the kitchen table of Miles Horton — we felt we had found someone making sense and supporting folks in finding real answers to what was pressing down on lives in terms of justice and human rights for ordinary people. Miles asked my first husband, Bob Gustafson, and myself (my married name then was Mary Lynn Gustafson) to come work at HREC. We said yes without even talking it over. We were eager to contribute to the movement to register voters as a huge first step in extending democracy to the farthest hollows of the land.

We co-directed the North-South Smoky Mountain Work Camp in Blount County, Tennessee for HREC in 1963. Our purpose was to bring an interracial group of volunteers to build a residential facility to be used for voter registration trainings of interracial groups of volunteers expected to pour South the following summer to participate in Bob Moses's Freedom Summer in nearby Mississippi. This work I knew I could do with two babes in tow to help build the road to full democracy. I had stars in my eyes.

Half the Work Camp volunteers were recruited through Dr King and SCLC, Birmingham Freedom Fighters well versed in movement action. The other volunteers were idealists, primarily young white and privileged solicited by Highlander through various networks in the north, people wanting to get involved by rolling up their sleeves and working. We had hammers and 10-penny nails and electric lines and lumber, we had work to do to just to get a temporary roof over the heads of the three dozen of us who merged on Rich Mountain in June.

In those days, co-habitation of inter-racial groups was illegal and contrary to local custom. Therefore a chargeable offense. One night we were all rousted from bed by men without badges, dressed in overalls, without arrest warrants, but armed with rifles. They searched the cabin and tents without a search warrant and took what they pleased, leaving them sacked. We were marched in the dark, a quarter of a mile along a rough path and shoved into unmarked cars, driven through mountain roads arriving at the Maryville jailhouse and shoved into cells.

I learned later that the black men were forced into the trunks of the cars for that winding ride through the mountains. Luckily, no physical violence occurred. We were in jail, "for our protection." Even my one and three year old daughters were apparently arrested, no phone calls allowed. The camp facilities were mysteriously burned a couple of days later. Perhaps Sheriff Trotter still has the research for my masters thesis that disappeared that night.

Weeks later, after a kangaroo Trial, SCLC bailed all of us out of jail. With legal clouds looming over us, Pete Seeger sent us $100 to get our car into shape, or for "research" as he framed the gift. We drove north as fast as we could. But we would never forget.

We were activist before our southern trip, but became super-activists after it. Racism and injustice becomes visible once it has slammed you and yours hard. We set up a fair housing office in Freedom House, worked on legislation, set up a Saturday freedom school in Cambridge, solicited private school integration scholarships, created inclusive curriculum in the Brookline Public Schools to support real school integration in the future. We led Work Camps in Roxbury for the AFSC, taught Head Start in Roxbury, our daughters integrated preschools in Roxbury which allowed the schools to get federal grants.

But our marriage was a Civil Rights Movement Casualty. Later when I moved to New Hampshire after I remarried to Daniel Watt, I was a member of the Martin Luther King Speaker Bureau going into schools and being interviewed by newspapers and press to share why the Civil Rights Movement was the responsibility of all Americans. I was lucky, I knew Bernard Lafayette, Jr., met Martin Luther King, Jr. several times. I knew Florence Reece, Rev Andy Young was a student of my father's, I worked with Noel Day. Otto and Muriel Snowden, Rev. Jim Reeb, Rev Jim Breedan. And so many more. As a young girl I had a long a conversation with Marion Anderson about music soaring where you can't — hopeful to me. As a teenager I knew Lena Horne. As a young woman I attended a club where Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, an experience I recall with awed terror. And I marched with so many. We knew we could change things, and we made changes. We were a Movement.

Copyright © Molly Watt. 2021

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