The path “We Shall Overcome” took from a Philadelphia minister’s hymnal in 1900 to become a universally recognizable anthem of our hopes for a more just society, led us to the Highlander Center, the behind the scenes hub of US social movements, their strategists and artists.
One of the things I love about the Highlander Center, perched on a hill in eastern Tennessee overlooking the Smokey Mountains, is that it points to the history and continuing possibility of cultural appreciation and political alignment between rural and urban working class communities. So often depicted as at odds with one another, or locked in the perpetual culture wars, the history of Highlander Center, upholding the racial justice work of the civil rights movement and the struggles for workers rights in Appalachia’s predominantly white working class communities shows that it is possible, and necessary to build solidarity between communities that face different aspects of the same structural injustices.
Hazel Dickens stands out to me as an artist rooted in her cultural tradition whose songs spoke to the specific plight of Appalachian coal mining communities and articulated a broader vision of setting things right. She shared her song 1973 “Black Lung,” about her brother’s fatal struggle with the coal miner’s disease at Highlander. Forty-five years later, the disease still affects tens of thousands of miners and retirees, and many go through long, expensive legal battles with their former employers to receive the health benefits they earned. Here is Hazel Dickens song, Black Lung: