The building on a plot of land outside Knoxville, Tennessee was not known for its architecture. Inside, it had no spacious arches. It was, as one could imagine, brimming with boxes and files from past work.
As unremarkable as the building itself may be, almost anyone involved in social change efforts in the United States has a thread that ties them, whether they know it or not, to the Highlander Center located outside Knoxville, Tennessee.
The history it holds makes it both epic and iconic.
It is where Martin Luther King Jr trained. As did Rosa Parks. As did Rep. John Lewis. As did labor organizers in the early 1930’s before them, as well as many modern movements that have come since.
Less than a month ago, an arsonist burnt its main office to the ground and left behind a white power symbol alongside the flames.
And so when I saw today that the Notre Dame cathedral had caught fire, I reacted, like almost anyone; with amazement, awe, impact, a sense of grief and accompaniment for the people of Paris who hold the iconic location dear.
And then wonder.
What is my connection to this building far far away, the house of a faith I was raised in but am estranged from? What place does it hold in my mental landscape that it causes such an immediate and automatic reaction?
The fact that it comes so quickly on the heels of both the Highlander Center arson and the burning of three Black churches in Louisiana made it so I couldn’t help but compare and ask another question.
What would it take for our reaction to Notre Dame on fire to be the universal reaction when our civil rights institutions not only burn down but are attacked with arson?
This is not a “what about-ism” aimed to rob people of their feelings about Notre Dame or to to strike a more conscience posture. It is a question about what institutions are given reverence and which are missing from our list of the revered.
In an email after the arson, the staff of Highlander described the center and the moment this way:
This is a time… to love each other and support each other and to keep each other safe in turbulent times… What’s next for Highlander is that we will continue to be that sacred place, that movement home, that place where strategy is developed, that place where principled struggle happens, that place that accompanies movement, that place that incubates rad work, and that place that demands transformative justice.
A “sacred place” and “movement home.” A place that has nurtured so many of the the history makers and the iconic moments of our movements. Nearing one hundred years old, built through generations of sweat, tears, love, and determination.
What would it look like if we held Highlander like a cathedral?