Was a Landmark Civil Rights Building the Target of a Hate Crime?

Landmark Burning Building

It sometimes seems beyond surreal and implausible that in 2019, America has slid back to the time of church bombings and suspicious fires fueled by racial hatred. Yet, here we are with a reported uptick to 226% in hate crimes in all the areas of the US where Donald Trump held campaign rallies –not that I’m drawing a correlation in any way.

Recently, a new troubling incident occurred in the state of Tennessee when one of its most revered civil rights institutions was burned down to the ground, and a white supremacist symbol was discovered near the burnt rubble.


The Highlander Research and Education Center, founded in 1932, rose to prominence as a social justice leadership training school. Some of the most notable civil rights figures trained at the center, among them Congressman John Lew and Rosa Parks. A suspicious fire destroyed a large section of the property last Friday, and it’s suspected to be a targeted crime.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that Tennessee today has 36 hate groups. The “hashtag symbol” found painted near the site of the fire indicates one of these groups could be the culprit. The symbol is commonly used by many white supremacy groups in the area through its actual meaning is not known. Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “It’s not a traditional, throw-it-in-your-face symbol that you would immediately recognize.”

Local authorities report that there has been a rapidly growing “white power” contingency in the area and across the nation with much of the activity seemingly increasing around 2016. Again, I draw no correlation to anything. I’m sure that date is just a coincidence.

Authorities report they don’t have any suspects yet in this particular case, but they are investigating thoroughly. Thankfully there were no injuries according to the center’s Facebook page, but the main building got destroyed along with many irreplaceable artifacts and documents.

In recent years the Highlander Center has also hosted LGBTQ events and activities, paving the way for the creation of the activist group GetEQUAL.

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