Sowing the Seeds for Social Change

I think it’s important to understand that the quality of the process you use to get to a place determines the ends, so when you want to build a democratic society, you have to act democratically in every way. If you want love and brotherhood, you’ve got to incorporate them as you go along, because you can’t just expect them to occur in the future without experiencing them before you get there. I agree with Che Guevara: the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. If that love isn’t built in, you’ll end up with a fascist society.
— Myles Horton, The Long Haul: an autoiography, p. 227

I’m not sure when I began to hear the name, Myles Horton, but the longer I’ve stayed in the activist, progressive movement for social change the more I’ve come to appreciate his importance. His autobiography, The Long Haul, written with Judith and Herbert Kohl and published 25 years ago, is a book that should be read and studied by anyone who has decided that they will do all that they can to overturn injustice and create a truly new world.

Who was Myles Horton? Studs Terkel described him as “America’s most influential and inspiring educator.” Bill Moyers wrote that “for more than fifty years he went on with his special kind of teaching—helping people to discover within themselves the courage and ability to confront reality and to change it.” Judith and Herbert Kohl wrote that “Myles struggled to help people become morally and politically literate and never withheld himself from the dangers of their struggles, even at the risk of his life.”

Horton was a co-founder in 1932 of the Highlander Folk School in New Market, TN. For years a major focus of its work was to build the progressive labor movement in the South. In the 50s and 60s it played a significant role in support of the Black-led civil rights movement. During the 70s and 80s it worked with people throughout Appalachia on issues of black lung disease, toxic rivers and landfills and similar issues.

The Long Haul describes how all of this happened, the struggles and difficulties along the way, the victories won and what Horton learned from the people he and others were teaching, the experiences they collectively had.

Throughout this book there are valuable lessons for those of us today. For example, if we want to understand why far too many white working class people were attracted to Trump, consider these wise words:

Only people with hope will struggle. The people who are hopeless are grist for the fascist mill. Because they have no hope, they have nothing to build on. If people are in trouble, if people are suffering and exploited and want to get out from under the heel of oppression, if they have hope that it can be done, if they can see a path that leads to a solution, a path that makes sense to them and is consistent with their beliefs and their experience, then they’ll move… If they don’t have hope, they don’t even look for a path. They look for somebody else to do it for them. (p. 44)

Then there’s the issue of polarization, about which I recently wrote. Here’s some of what Horton wrote about that:

A large social movement forces people to take a stand for or against it, so that there are no longer any neutrals. You’ve got to be on one side or the other. It’s true that it forces some people to be worse than they would be, more violent than they would be, but it also forces some people to get behind the cause and work for it and even die for it. People have to understand that you can’t make progress without pain, because you can’t make progress without provoking violent oppression. If enough people want change and others stand in their way, they’re going to force them out of the way. A revolution is just the last step of a social movement after it has taken a prerevolutionary form. Then it changes again—qualitatively—into something else. It’s no longer a prerevolutionary movement, it’s a movement that transforms social, political and economic structures. (p. 114)

Finally, and critically, Horton addresses the issue of principles and strategy, the way in which some activists,

especially those who act out of guilt or who are recent converts, get principle mixed up with strategy. They learn it all as a package, and they think, ‘You believe this, and you do it this way.’ They feel that they would be betraying their principles if they didn’t do something a particular way. People must be helped to understand that strategy is different from principle, that you’ve got to find a creative way to get what you’re aiming at. If you’re locked in a room and have to get out, you’re not going to just stand there and rattle the door. You’re going to try to find another way to escape from that room. Maybe you’ll manage to force the lock, or you might break a window. You won’t spend any time saying, ‘Well I’ve got to find the correct way to do it,’ because that’s impossible. You’ll have to find another way. (p. 199)

Myles Horton died in 1990, but like other people down through history and herstory who gave of their lives for others and for a hopeful future, his example and his teachings live on in the hearts and minds of many who knew him. Fortunately, because of The Long Haul, other people, myself included, are able to appreciate all that he did, gain strength for the long haul of progressive activism for societal change that more and more of us need to commit, or recommit, to at this turning point time in world history.

Ted Glick works with Beyond Extreme Energy and is president of 350NJ-Rockland. Past writings and other information, including about Burglar for Peace and 21st Century Revolution, two books published by him in 2020 and 2021, can be found at He can be followed on Twitter at Read other articles by Ted.