Activism isn’t something that came to Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson later in life. 

Woodard Henderson spent most of her youth organizing against mountaintop removal and environmental racism in central and southern Appalachia, and today, at 33, she serves as the co-executive director of one of the most storied civil rights centers in the country, the Highlander Research and Education Center. 

In 1932, Myles Horton, along with Jim Dombrowski and Don West, founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, 45 miles northwest of Chattanooga. They set about training union organizers throughout Appalachia and the South while speaking out against segregation in particular and social injustice in general. 

Soon after founding Highlander, while engaged in a coal miners’ strike in Wilder, Tennessee, Horton was arrested for what authorities described as “coming here and getting information and going back and teaching it” – guilty as charged. That sentiment persisted at Highlander.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, civil rights activists – including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis – traveled to Monteagle to attend workshops and learning sessions, to commune, to sing and to celebrate, to gather strength for the struggles ahead.

In 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked the Highlander Folk School’s charter and confiscated its properties. It immediately reopened in Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center. “You can padlock a building. But you can’t padlock an idea,” Horton said at the time. “Highlander is an idea.”

In 1972, the center moved to its current home in New Market, a half hour northeast of Knoxville. That’s the center that Woodard Henderson now leads, continuing to advance a nearly century-old tradition of social-justice advocacy and action in Appalachia and beyond.

As the country watches a not-so-new resurgence of civil rights activism in its streets, Taylor Sisk spoke with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson about racism as a public health crisis and the mobilization since the murder of  George Floyd; about the significance of being the first Black woman to serve as Highlander’s executive director; and about the many efforts to shut Highlander up and the thread that’s run through its work through the decades. 

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity. 

Co-executive directors of the Highlander Research and Education Center Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, left, and Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, right. Photo: Provided/Highlander Center for Research and Education

Taylor Sisk: In your bios, you describe yourself as Affrilachian. Can you talk a bit about how that shapes your identity and how it might be distinct from being a Black Southerner?

Ash-Lee Henderson: I think it’s just a particular way to be a Black Southerner. I wouldn’t segregate those two things. I think that everything I know about how to be good in this world, how to be in the right relationship with the land, how to fight for what is right is influenced by being from east Tennessee.

I live a life of being Black at the intersections of both my racial and national origin and my geographic locationality. I believe the reason that I fight the way I do is because it’s my inheritance, because Black people in Appalachia have been fighting for social justice, economic justice, education justice and all of the forms of liberation and justice for as long as our people have been living in this part of the world.

I’m proud to be Southern. But just like I feel like I come from people that are proud to be from the Black Belt South and people that are proud to be from the Gulf South, I’m proud to be from central Appalachia.

TS: How far back can you go with your family’s history in the part of eastern Tennessee that you’re from?

AH: I’m from Hamilton County. I have family from north Georgia and southwest Tennessee and Mississippi as well. But in terms of the relatives that I have in southeast Tennessee, we go back six generations.

TS: In a piece you wrote for Essence magazine in early spring, prior to the mobilization after the murder of George Floyd, you wrote: 

“Despite the disproportionate and disastrous impact of state-sanctioned violence, a discriminatory health care system, and a trickle-down-till-it-stops economic infrastructure, Black Southerners are once again in this nation’s peripheral vision – even as the COVID-19 global pandemic threatens to devastate our communities.”

Can you describe what you were feeling when you wrote that?

AH: I was feeling a lot of things. I was feeling pissed off that, once again, the folks who are most directly and disproportionately impacted by the intersecting crises of this country are consistently paid attention to only when it’s convenient for the elite, for folks outside the region, for folks of wealth.

I was also feeling a deep and abiding love and sense of accountability to naming the truth, which is that the reason to pay attention to Black folks in the region isn’t just because they’re disproportionately impacted by all the bad things, it’s even more importantly because they’ve been at the heart and the brains and the hands on the freedom plow that have made social change possible in this country.

You cannot talk about abolition in this country and not talk about the fact that the first abolitionist newspaper was in central Appalachia. You cannot talk about a Black liberationist movement that is rooted in radical politics and not talk about the fact that one of the largest Universal Negro Improvement Association chapters in this country was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can’t talk about the contemporary movement for Black lives and not talk about Mukasa Ricks and Lorenzo Ervin and Maxine Cousin and so many other incredible Black freedom fighters in the South.

I just think that so often the camera is pointed at us because it’s a sob story, or because the root of all evil in regard to capitalism and white supremacy shows up in a particularly overt way in our region. And I’m saying that it’s time to point the camera to the South because Black people and otherwise marginalized and targeted communities in the South have been fighting back successfully against these systems that have been oppressing us for generations. And we have a lot to teach, a lot to share and a lot to do together to really practice solidarity and not just speak about it as a principle.

TS: Dr. Camara Jones at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute — which is located at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and works on policies that create health equity —  calls racism a public health crisis. Can you share your thoughts on that?

AH: I think it’s just a fundamental truth, right? Not an opinion. I think we can see both with the intersecting crises between white supremacy and this global pandemic and its disproportional impact on Black folks and Black communities the evidence that that statement is true.

But even if there wasn’t a global pandemic, if me being Black puts me in an increased likelihood of being murdered by police officers with impunity, that is impactful to my health and the public health of my community. That has been a crisis.

I think that what we know is that there isn’t any question about racism being a public health crisis. The more important question is, “What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it?” – and recognizing that we have the power and the resources and the brilliance to be able to build the country that we’ve always deserved together, where everyone has resources, everyone is able to thrive, everyone is able to live in their fullest dignity for a very long time.

TS: How has this public health crisis of racism been exacerbated by the pandemic?

AH: We are now in a moment where there are some people who are getting to decide, very literally, who can survive this pandemic and who cannot; who gets to live and who dies, like necrocapitalism – that based on your privileges, based on the luck of the draw in which you were born, that some of us get to survive this and some of us don’t. And we are smarter than that; we are better than that. We deserve a country that actually values all of our lives.

And so I think that the intersection between white supremacy and class and all the other forms of systemic oppression – whether it’s ableism, heteronormativity and all of the others – are just even more overtly connected – that if you’re of a marginalized or targeted identity your ability to be able to survive this pandemic is being decided based on people’s access to wealth and political decision-making power.

We’re also in an election season, and that puts the impetus on us to make the choice to do everything in our power to protect our people but also to ensure that our people go to the polls and vote for folks that believe in platforms that actually will help us survive this pandemic – these intersecting pandemics of white supremacy, capitalism and COVID. And I think we need to continue to demand that even outside of an electoral cycle.

TS: You’re the first Black woman to serve as executive director of the Highlander Center, which has a long, storied history in civil rights movements in Appalachia and the South. Can you talk about what the position means to you, and the significance of it?

AH: It’s such an overwhelming responsibility in this particular pendulum swing of political reality to be serving at the Highlander Center, which is nearly 90 years old. I think that it’s significant for me because it took 85 years to get to the place of finally being stewarded by a Black woman’s leadership. I say that with love and the reality that it could have come much sooner.

What it also is, is a grand inheritance. We’ve had incredible leadership, incredible folks coming through the center, incredible folks leading in multiple other ways, whether it was leading our educational work, folks like Septima Clark, folks like Tufara Waller Muhammad, folks like Rosa Parks, who served on our board of directors, and folks like Makani Themba, who currently is serving on our board of directors.

We have had incredible Black leadership over the generations of Highlander’s work. and to be helping to steward it in a 21st century context – where the Black liberation movement has become the largest social movement in the United States in its history, when there’s so much need in the region, and so many of the uprisings that we’ve seen and the incredible radical shifts to push for what is good and deserved by all of our people is centered on Southern leadership – it’s a great privilege and a great responsibility.

TS: How has Highlander evolved over the years, and what’s been constant?

AH: Highlander has been a school, since 1932, where people can come together across their differences to learn with each other and then to take that new knowledge back home to their communities and build a better community that’s good for all people. That’s been true since 1932; it remains true now.

I think what’s remained consistent is that white supremacy has attacked it at every opportunity, whether that was white supremacists working with law enforcement in the state to try to shut us down and move us out of our original home in Grundy County, Tennessee, up on Monteagle. Or when urban development and the Ku Klux Klan attempted to move us out and shut us down when we moved to Knoxville. Or the most recent attack on Highlander’s work back in March of 2019, when white supremacists burned down our administrative offices – whether the investigation ever concludes to prove it or not, we know it to be true.

I think that what we know for sure is that the work to build a better South, to build a stronger United States, that’s rooted in our politic around being a place where liberty and justice is for all people – where liberation is something that is a fundamental innate human right, not just a privilege based on the color of your skin, who you love, where you live, how much money you have access to or your ability – we’ve been committed to that and we remain committed to being that catalyst for social movements, particularly in Appalachia and the South. But that work has national and international implications. And so we have been leaning very much into that in a 21st century context.

People always want to know what area of work is Highlander focused on. What I would say is that what we’re focused on is making sure that all people of goodwill are excellent and have access to our curriculum around our methodologies. We want every person that’s an activist or an organizer or an advocate out there to be excellent at popular education. We want them to be excellent at language justice. We want them to be excellent at participatory-action research. We want them to be excellent at intergenerational organizing. We want them to be experts in what’s happening in their place and rooted to that work.

So we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that that’s accessible to all social movements regardless of the front line. And what’s real is, I think Highlander, even in times when we were focused on particular areas of work – whether that was racial justice and civil rights or labor or environmental justice –we were always doing that sort of movement-accompaniment support with folks across difference; that was always happening. So what we’re doing now is very much continuing in that tradition.

TS: Can you tell us about some of the initiatives that have been launched nationally since the outbreak of the pandemic and the mobilization after the murder of George Floyd.

AH: For folks that aren’t deeply engaged on an everyday basis, which is arguably a lot of people, it could look like [the mobilization around] COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Tony McDade or Black and brown trans women, the missing and murdered Indigenous women – like those were things that just sparked up. But what’s actually true is that it’s decades and, in fact, generations-long work that have led to this social movement being so strong. … It took movement infrastructure to help support that uprising to continue to fight for movement demands.

But what I would say has shifted in the last six months or so is that I think more and more folks are recognizing that this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, where we have to be working across our silos, sectors and areas of work to work together to build the kind of United States that we’ve always deserved.

And so we’ve seen folks coming together across housing issues and renters’ justice and workers’ rights and racial justice. We saw the Strike for Black Lives. We saw the Movement for Black Lives do incredible work on the weekend of Juneteenth. We’ve seen an intergenerational movement. We’ve seen folks get really deep into studying “when were there moments like this before,” comparing, for example, what was happening in our country in 1919 to what’s happening now in 2020 and seeing where there are parallels and where there are lessons that can be applied right now.

We’ve seen incredible work with The Rising Majority and we’ve seen, locally, the STAY Together Appalachian Youth Project doing really incredible work. We’ve seen folks demanding access to culturally relevant education. We’ve seen so many demands that folks are amplifying across their areas of work that I think is actually what’s gonna build this popular united front of those of us with goodwill who have said enough is enough, we want to live into beloved community, we want to practice it right now, we don’t want to wait anymore for justice for our people.

I think that what COVID has meant to this particular moment of uprising is a few things. One is that people are learning how to protest in multiple forms, whether it’s getting PPE and being out in the streets together or whether it’s finding ways to be engaged from the safety of your home, online, calling legislators, emailing legislators, writing letters to legislators saying that you want them to support the Breathe Act. Or you want them to implement something in the Vision for Black Lives policy platform or any of the many incredible demands, whether it’s defund police or invest in our communities, that are coming up from the grassroots, that are street mandates for what legislators should be doing right now.

But what we’ve also seen – and I think that particularly COVID-19 popularized some of this language – is mutual aid. And when I say mutual aid, I don’t mean charity; I literally mean grassroots communities coming together to meet each other’s needs. I think we’ve been able to see that not only in individual really super-local manifestations of that work, but I’ve also seen an incredible network of folks growing their relationships across geographies to be able to meet each other’s needs. And I think that’s been some of the most beautiful work that I’ve seen in the context of the intersecting pandemics.

TS: I want to read you this passage. I know you’ve read it. It’s from the essay John Lewis wrote shortly before his death:

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

What do those words say to you?

AH: John Lewis’s first integrated meal of his life was at the Highlander Center. We have a deep love and affinity for Congressman Lewis and are sending love and solidarity to his family and our comrades who are there mourning his loss.

What I hear with Congressman Lewis’s words is that now is the time. Now is the time to both really be clear about what we mean when we talk about the violence that we’re uprooting, which is the violence of white supremacy, the violence of capitalism, the violence of militarized forces in our communities that are terrorizing people. They’re being funded, supposedly, to keep us safe, but are actually the cause of so many of our lives being cut short. [We need to be] investing those resources into what could create healthy, sustainable and peaceful communities, like supporting community-controlled solutions to harm, community-controlled responses to the crisis of houselessness, to making sure that folks who are having mental health crises have access to people who are fully and adequately trained to deescalate the situation and get them to the support that they deserve and that they need.

I think that there is a multigenerational commitment from people in the South, in the Midwest, in the Northeast, on the West Coast, all across this country. We saw that after George Floyd was murdered, we had uprisings in all 50 states, every single one, not to mention the very specific uprisings that we saw in places like Puerto Rico and D.C. that actually don’t have full statehood like the rest of us.

And so what I would offer when I hear brother John’s words is that, yeah, it’s time. And now that we have the commitment, we have people that are really ready to throw down, now’s the time not only to throw tactical spaghetti at the wall and hope that something sticks, but to be innovative and intentional with our strategic and tactical interventions so that we actually are paying attention to whether or not we’re putting more power into the hands of grassroots marginalized and targeted communities in the South and across this country, or if we’re putting more power into the hands of the state that pretty wholesale failed us at the intersection of these crises.

And if we’re putting more power into the hands of the state and the systems that are harming us, then I think we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to say, “That’s not the kind of solutions that we’re talking about in this moment.” We’re not trying to put 2014 or 1990 solutions on a 2020 problem. And we have folks on the ground; we have the infrastructure in Appalachia and the South to be able to build social movements that are strong enough to win these things.

And so I feel proud to be one of the many who have inherited John’s legacy and to continue that work. But to not just do it in a way that’s like, “In the forever by and by somebody will get to be free,” but to do everything we can to push the moral arc of the universe towards justice and to do that quickly. Because lives literally depend on it. I think that is our assignment.

TS: You’ve made the answer to my final question pretty obvious. In the midst of this very trying time, are you optimistic?

AH: I have hope. And I think we all should have hope. Because what’s real is that many of us who are part of these lifesaving social movements have an inheritance of people being victorious over systems that folks said would never go away.

How could I not be hopeful when I am the descendant of Africans who, when people told them that abolition was too radical – that slavery wasn’t something that could be dismantled overnight, that they should be slow and patient – fought with everything that they had, by any means necessary, to destroy that system that was destroying so many lives? When I come from a people who built a multiracial labor movement in central Appalachia that informed everything, every political reality, in the labor movement today, right? How could I not be hopeful when I’m the descendant of folks like Fannie Lou Hamer and Pap Hamer and the Southern Freedom Movement that changed federal legislation?

I feel hopeful because the people in the streets have been consistently there for months now saying that enough is enough and putting their very lives on the line. And we’ve already seen what that direct-action movement has made possible in regard to policy and electoral justice.

I absolutely feel hopeful. But my hope is not uninformed or naive. I feel hopeful because I’m also committing every single moment of my every single day to making sure that social movements that I support have what they need – including my body, my hands, my brain, my heart and my words – to be on the winning side, on the freedom side.

And I think that that’s what’s gonna be required to get to the world that we want – is for everybody to figure out what they have to contribute to the social good and to contribute it as much as they can, as excellently as they can, in this moment, so that we can actually win and never have to do this again. That is the goal.

So, yeah, I feel hopeful, because of the people – because of the people, what we’re doing now and what our people have consistently done for generations to build a better world for all of us.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is the co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. She is a longtime activist working around issues of mountaintop removal mining and environmental racism in central and southern Appalachia and has served on the National Council of the Student Environmental Action Coalition. She is an active participant in the Movement for Black Lives and is on the governance council of the Southern Movement Assembly.