To make an online gift to Highlander in memory of Lewis Sinclair, click here.

Highlander’s staff and Board celebrate the life and mourn the passing of Lewis Sinclair, a tireless advocate for social justice and human rights whose work with Highlander spanned more than 50 years.

In 1956, Lewis, his wife, and son stopped at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, on their way to visit family in Mississippi. His son was so impressed by Highlander that he joined an integrated youth camp that was underway at the time and stayed for two weeks. By 1959, Lewis himself had joined the Board and become actively involved in the work of the school.

Lewis Sinclair (left) at Highlander's Knoxville facility; 1960s.
Lewis Sinclair (left) at Highlander’s Knoxville facility; 1960s.

In 1961, Lewis provided critical assistance to Highlander when it was forced to move to Knoxville after its charter was revoked and its land and buildings were confiscated by the state of Tennessee because of its work with the Civil Rights Movement. As vice-chair of the Knoxville Area Human Relations Council, he was one of the few prominent residents to support Highlander, and he was forced to leave the Council as a result. He also joined the Board of the reconstituted Highlander Research and Education Center, where he continued to serve – most recently as an emeritus Board member – until his passing on June 8th.

As a member of the Board, Lewis was involved in all aspects of the Highlander’s work, including its work with the Civil Rights Movement, the environmental justice movement, and, more recently, the immigrant rights movement. He also traveled to Mexico, China, and Nicaragua with Highlander’s founder Myles Horton and other members of the Highlander Board and staff, helping to forge connections between Highlander and popular educators and activists around the world

Lewis and Mary Sinclair at Highlander's 75th anniversary; 2007 Lewis and Mary Sinclair at Highlander's 75th anniversary; 2007
Lewis and Mary Sinclair at Highlander’s 75th anniversary; 2007.

Born in 1914, Lewis was the first African American man to receive a graduate degree from the University of Tennessee, and he worked for many years as an economist for the Tennessee Valley Authority. In addition to his work with Highlander, he served on the boards of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Center for Human Rights, where he helped protect the rights of poor defendants in death-penalty cases.

Lewis’s long commitment to Highlander, through good times and bad, made him a unique and valuable member of the Board. He was good at raising questions about Highlander’s work and at challenging decisions he thought might take the organization in the wrong direction. He also inspired countless Highlander Board and staff members with his optimism, his sense of humor, his love of music and dancing, his deep commitment to justice, and his determination to see things change.

Along with many others, we will miss Lewis Sinclair. Our thoughts are with his wife Mary, his son James, and the other members of his family during this difficult time.

Please leave your thoughts and memories of Lewis by commenting on this post. Click here to comment.


July 17, 2008 – Gifts in memory of Lewis may be sent to the following:

To make an online gift to Highlander in memory of Lewis, click here.


Audio Clips

Excerpts from a 2007 interview with Lewis Sinclair by Highlander staff member Susan Williams. (The files may take a few seconds to begin playing. If the audio is not working, contact hrec (at)

2 Responses

  1. Dear friends,

    What a wonderful tribute to a great person. We owe so much to Lewis Sinclair and those of his generation who, through great struggle, accomplished so much that continues to be of benefit to all of us. Without leaders like Lewis, many of whom passed through Highlander over it’s long history, I can’t imagine where our progressive community would be today.

    I remember Lewis’s warm welcome when I joined the staff of Highlander and always enjoyed seeing him at board meetings. His sense of humor and kindness were always evident, and his great love of Highlander and passion for social justice made him an inspiration to the staff. He will be greatly missed.

    Scot Nakagawa

  2. I met Lewis in the early 60s at Highlander at the Knoxville facility. I also shared the responsibilities on being a Board Member of Highlander. He was also on the Board with my mother, Edith Easterling, for several years. He was a great friend of both my parents and me. We were so happy when we met Mary and saw how happy their partnership made them.

    My relationship with Highlander was the same as my relationship with any organization. I took my job seriously and was always thinking about the hows, whys, and whats, at Highlander. Many times early on I talked with Lewis about my committment to stay in the Central Appalachians as my home and the place I worked. He seemed to understand so much, but the most important thing he did was listen to me, take me seriously, and give me positive comments. I was young, impulsive, idealistic, but oh so serious about what I thought I could do. It has always been a confort to know that he was still there, and now knowing he is gone makes me feel a little bit more alone. None the less, his example and his heart will always be with me.