White Power Symbol Found Near Fire at Historic Civil Rights Institution

The Tennessee-based Highlander Research and Education Center, one of the nation’s beacons of social justice, said that a symbol of the white power movement was found near the site of a fire that destroyed the institution’s main office on March 29. According to a statement submitted to The North Star on April 2, members of the center discovered a spray-painted emblem on the parking lot connected to the main office. Suspects' names have not been revealed.

“We know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across the nation, and globally,” the statement read. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.” The statement added that such movements' “increase in size and scale impact the realities of our daily lives here because the majority of Black people in this country reside in Southern states.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the rise of the “alt-right” and its nostalgia for a pre-1960s America date back to 2015. Thirty-six hate groups operated in Tennessee in 2018, in addition to dozens linked to the white supremacist movement. SPLC’s blog, Hatewatch, has reached out to Highlander for more information about the symbol found at the site of the fire. Last week, flames engulfed a facility that housed Highlander’s leadership and staff, as well as important archives and items from the Civil Rights Movement, The Root reported. Highlander’s additional nine buildings, which sit on a 200-acre property, did not suffer any damages. Several people were on the grounds at the time of the fire, though no one was inside the structure and no one was injured.

“Highlander has been a movement home for nearly 87 years and has weathered many storms. This is no different,” a statement from the center read. “We are grateful for the support of the many movements who are now showing up for us in this critical time. This has been a space for training, strategy and respite for decades and it will continue to be for decades to come.” The incident was initially reported to be a brush fire. However, the state fire marshal is now investigating because the fire alarm system in the building failed to notify E-911, Knoxville News Sentinel reported. The center wrote a follow-up post on Facebook following the fire marshal’s announcement.

“Now is the time to be vigilant. To love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times. Remember, Mama Assata said that is our duty. To love each other. To support each other. To be vigilant. To our commitments. To the building of the world we’ve always deserved. To each other’s safety,” the center said. The center tweeted a call for donations in the wake of the conflagration. “We are committed to being a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building at home in Appalachia and across the South,” the message read. “We still believe in the power of popular education, language justice, participatory research.”

The Highlander Center was founded in 1932 and moved from Monteagle, Tennessee to its current location in New Market in 1972. It was also based in Knoxville from 1961 to 1971, when the state revoked its charter and took over its facilities in Monteagle in 1961, the News Sentinel noted.

The center played a pivotal role in supporting Civil Rights figures including Rosa Parks, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Martin Luther King Jr., and Georgia Representative John Lewis. The institution also hosts trainings and workshops.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.