Anne Braden's Tireless War on Racism: The South's Rebel Without a Pause
Regarding southern white resistance to white supremacy, the story of Anne Braden is perhaps one of the most important contemporary depictions of it all. In fact, with respect to activism overall in the South, it was in 2005 and 2006 that we in the South lost three giants in the civil rights movement who knew each other and whose life's work intersected. First we lost Rosa Parks in October 2005, then Coretta Scott King in January 2006, and on March 6, 2006 Anne Braden died in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 81. Her biographer Cate Fosl has wisely said about Anne, "Hers has been among the most forceful and persistent of white voices for racial equality in modern U.S. history." Fosl's "Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and The Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South" is an invaluable history of our Southern civil rights movement.
Upon meeting Anne in 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said that she was "the most amazing white woman" for her dedication to civil rights. I recall in the interview by CSPAN's Brian Lamb of Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), shortly before he died, Toure mentioning the importance of Anne's work in the 1960's. When Anne and her husband Carl were being maligned as communists during the height of the 1960's the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham fame told us at a gathering in the 1990's that in no way would he or did he abandon Anne. Cries of "communism", he said, were always the ploy in an attempt to destabilize effective work for justice.
One of the many newspaper clippings about Anne at her funeral in Louisville described her in bold print as "A Rebel Without a Pause." That was Anne to be sure. The fact is, she never shied away from anything that would advance justice in the South and she never let anyone else pause either. This defiance on her part was always on the surface and always expressed. In the 1950's she and her husband Carl joined the staff of the civil rights organization, the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). As a journalist, Anne wrote for SCEF's newspaper the "Southern Patriot". In a revealing 1962 "Southern Patriot" article entitled "Don't Waste a Stamp" Anne addressed potential funders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Many across the country were concerned about the increasing violence in the south and wanted to encourage these young activists to leave. Anne wrote:
While I was in Southwest Georgia, one of the two cars used by the student registration workers broke down. They managed to get it fixed, but the prospects were dim.
And even two cars as not enough - not for 10 or more students to canvass over three counties and planning soon to expand into more. Food these students can sometimes manage without. Cars are essential.
Thinking of their situation, you probably feel like writing them a letter urging them to get out of Georgia before they are killed. But I tell you this would be a waste of a stamp. They won't leave. So instead, why not use your stamp to send a check to help buy another car?
Students in Mississippi have the same problem. One SNCC field secretary told me he is assigned to cover a 45 square-mile area populated by 28,000 Negroes. And he has no car at all. So sometimes he travels by mule, literally" (1962, Southern Patriot)..
Like hundreds of white and black activists throughout the South and the country, I am honored to acknowledge that I am one of her "white" step-children. Anne seemed to have her fingers on the pulse of activism throughout the entire South. She called upon countless numbers of us on a consistent basis to help her on a project or someone else in the region that needed assistance
Sometimes we didn't know what was happening behind the scenes. Only the week after she died did I discover, after a phone call from Nick Mottern in New York, that it was Anne who advised national organizers of the Africa Peace Tour that I organize the tour in the southeast in the 1987. Organizing the tour in seven states helped me considerably in subsequent work against apartheid and learning more about the southern region and its activists. Anne knew this would happen of course! Then she would draw upon those contacts and expertise for intensification and expansion of the work. I remember in the 1980's when I was in an Atlanta hospital for a major operation, just out of the recovery room, and the phone rings. It was Anne. Somehow she tracked me down from Louisville. Anne said "Heather, you're just out of the operating room? I'm so sorry but I need this important information." So, while I could hardly hold on to the phone, for some 30 minutes we talked about an upcoming major demonstration in the South to address the horrors of white supremacy. But that was Anne. None of us who worked with her would even think about not helping her with whatever she needed. I would venture to say that most of us felt honored that she even thought to call us for advice or information.
I was also fortunate to serve on the board of the "Southern Organizing Committee for Racial and Economic Justice" (SOC) that Anne co-chaired along with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. The organization was one of the few that provided the opportunity for us to think and act regionally and to make the essential connections of the myriad of issues we faced. From the 1980's and on the meetings were always filled with a diversity of black, white and eventually Latino activists in the region.
We would sit for hours in New Orleans, Montgomery or Birmingham to strategize on various issues, activities and mistakes we've made then and in the past. We would also listen, learn and occasionally join in while the legendary leaders in our midst discussed and analyzed the dynamics of white supremacy, racial politics generally and labor challenges in the South. Anne was never without offering a lengthy epistle about anything until the wee hours of the night along with her ever present cigarettes! These sessions were often both grueling and enlightening. They were not only a history lesson but also a socialization process into the tactics of southern civil rights activism and Anne understood the importance of this. She wanted to pass this information on to all of us and to keep the momentum going at every conceivable juncture. The meetings were a roll call of southern leaders and activists the likes of Reverend C.T. Vivian, Jack O'Dell, Gwen Patton, Virginia Durr, Reverend Fred Taylor, Reverend James Orange, Connie Tucker, John Zippert, Jackie Ward, Reverend Ben Chavis, Charlie Orrock, Ann Romaine, Damu Smith, Jim Dunn, Judy Hand, Scott Douglas, Ron Chisholm, Spiver Gordon, Pat Bryant, Tirso Moreno and countless others.
I remember a few years ago when Anne was to receive yet another award - this time from the Fund for Southern Communities. We watched as the small, frail, yet powerful Anne walked to the front of the crowded Sisters Chapel at Spelman College in Atlanta to receive the award. In what was vintage Anne, she told the crowd that while she appreciated the award it surprises her that she would be acknowledged in this way and that she always expects, instead, to get arrested!
Anne was not unlike many white southern women and men in the civil rights movement who were essentially kicked out of their family when they declared their commitment to racial justice. She told me once that however painful the loss of family might be, the experience of battling white supremacy can be liberating. She said a few years ago that once we as whites have wrenched ourselves as much as possible from the horrible burden and shackles of white supremacy, we are finally free.
But Anne also insisted, of course, that the responsibility of whites goes far beyond "examining our souls". In a January/February 2006 Fellowship of Reconciliation article, entitled "Finding Another America" she expressed that in a practical sense relatively little, if any, progress toward justice in America could be made until racism is confronted. She said, "It is certainly true that our society faces many life-and-death issues. But we can't deal effectively with any of these problems until we mount an aggressive offense against racism. This is not only morally right; it's a practical matter. As long as our society can dump its problems on people of color it will not seek or find real solutions." In a discussion she and I once had about the South African Freedom Charter and whether we need something like that in the United States, I remember her saying that we already have in place much that is not adhered to. She said "There's nothing wrong for example, with the 'U.S. Bill of Rights' - we just need to implement what it says." This was typical Anne who appropriately acknowledged that the U.S. has much rhetoric about justice along with official documents to that effect, that, given it's white supremacist orientation, is simply not applied.
After her death in 2006, the following brief and informative encapsulation of Anne's history was provided by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and the Carl Braden Memorial Center.
"Braden catapulted into national headlines in mid-1954 when she and her husband Carl Braden were indicted for sedition for their leadership in desegregating a Louisville, Kentucky suburb. Their purchase of a house in an all-white neighborhood on behalf of African Americans Andrew and Charlotte Wade violated Louisville's color line and provoked violence against both families, culminating with the dynamiting of the house in June of 1964. A subsequent grand jury investigation concentrated not on the neighborhood's harassment of the Wades, but looked to the Braden's supposedly communistic intentions in backing the purchase, and they were indicted for sedition that Fall. The couple's sedition case made national news and earned them the ire of segregationists across the South, which was reeling from the U.S. Supreme Court's condemnation of school segregation in its Brown ruling earlier that Spring. Only Carl was convicted, and that conviction was later overturned. The sedition charges left the Bradens pariahs, branded as radicals and "reds' in the Cold-War South, and they became fierce civil libertarians who openly espoused left-wing social critiques but would never either embrace nor disavow the Communist Party publicly because they felt that to do so accepted the terms of the 1950's anti-communist "witch hunts."
Anne Braden's memoir of the case, "The Wall Between", was published in 1958, becoming one of the few accounts of its era to probe the psychology of white southern racism from within. Their case also introduced the Bradens to the civil rights movement blossoming farther south, in which white allies were few and far between.
The Bradens soon joined the staff of a regional civil rights organization, the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), and began traveling the region to solicit greater white support for the movement. As the 1960s dawned, Anne Braden became a mentor and role model to younger southern students who joined the movement a role she maintained for the rest of her life. Although she was suspect in some circles, Braden publicized and supported the student sit-ins in the pages of SCEF's Southern Patriot newspaper, which she edited, and she encouraged a broader vision of social change that would include peace and justice. She was also instrumental in Louisville's Open Housing movement in the later sixties, and among the leading white voices who helped to bring peace to the turbulent second generation of school desegregation, in which busing brought open violence to Louisville and other cities in the mid-1970's.
After Carl Braden's untimely death in 1975, Anne Braden remained a central proponent of racial justice in Louisville and across the South, eventually evolving from pariah to heroine. Braden's primary message was the centrality of racism in the U.S. social fabric, but she constantly stressed that civil rights activism was as much whites' responsibility as it was that of people of color.
In speeches delivered in the nearly six decades of her activism, Braden would frequently reflect on her odyssey from segregationist youth to anti-racist advocate: a process she called "turning myself inside out." Reared in a middle class, pro-segregation family, Braden changed as a young reporter covering the emerging civil rights movement in 1947 Alabama, where she had observed two separate and unequal systems of justice meted out in the Birmingham courthouse. She subsequently left the supposed neutrality of mainstream journalism to apply her considerable journalistic talents to the aid of African Americans in their quest to end segregation. Her efforts against southern racism, her friend and fellow activist Angela Davis reflected, "enabled vast and often spectacular social changes, that most of her contemporaries during the 1950s would never have been able to imagine."
The documentation about Anne Braden's remarkable activism is revealed in the 2012 film appropriately entitled "The Southern Patriot".
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.