Anne Braden’s work in the name of justice spans more than five decades and crosses paths with both the legendary and the unsung heroes of the southern freedom movement. Her talent as a journalist and passion as an activist makes for a dynamic combination of not only relaying the stories of injustice in the world but also working to change them.
Born in 1924 in Louisville from a long line of Kentuckians, Braden spent her Depression-era childhood in Mississippi and Alabama. After attending Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, she returned to her native Kentucky in 1947 to pursue a career in journalism. She specialized in reporting courthouse trials, but it didn’t take long for Braden to realize that the real stories were not the trials but the grave injustices perpetrated by courts themselves. Her curiosity and outrage propelled her into ever-broader circles of social justice work and exposed her and her husband, Carl Braden, to the red-baiting that was often used to discourage white southerners from participation in the freedom movement.
From 1957 until 1973, she worked with the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), an interracial organization across the South whose mission was to bring whites into the activities of the civil rights movement, and edited its publication, The Southern Patriot. Despite being the target of frequent attacks from mainstream political groups as well as governmental agencies, the SCEF proved to be extremely resilient and is often credited with playing a key role in the dissolution of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1975. Nonetheless, the impact of the red-baiting and being labeled subversives took its toll on the SCEF and on the Bradens, turning some other civil rights groups against them for fear of being labeled in the same way. Since 1975, Braden has worked with the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic & Social Justice (SOC) as well as several other regional and national organizations.
Anne and Carl Braden shared a deep concern for racial and economic justice and the two of them where a frequent target of attacks. In 1954, as a method of protesting the rigid practice of racial segregation in neighborhoods, the Bradens arranged to purchase a house in an all-white neighborhood of Louisville and deed it over to Andrew Wade and his wife, who were African American. White supremacists lashed out at this act and tried to intimidate the Wades with cross burnings and bombings. Anne carefully chronicled the ordeal and used it as the basis for her book The Wall Between, which was published in 1958 and was runner-up for the National Book Award that year. As a result of their actions, Carl Braden was charged with sedition, since working for racial integration was interpreted by many southern whites as an outright sign of communist support. He was sentenced to 15 years and ended up serving eight months before he was released on the highest bond ever set in Kentucky up to that time. In 1967, the Bradens were again charged with sedition for protesting the practice of strip-mining in Pike County, Kentucky. Fortunately, they were able to use this case to test the Kentucky sedition law, which was eventually ruled unconstitutional.
Like her teacher, Miles Horton, at the Highlander School, Braden has dedicated her life to impelling whites into the cause of justice for all people. Since her husband’s death, she has remained active in networks of anti-racist work and has provided inspiration for many who did not otherwise see themselves as part of the movement as they understood it. She worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign during the 1984 and 1988 elections, and is an active member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Louisville. Her story encourages a sense of the connectedness of peace and justice struggles across a wide range of communities.
William Fulton, Staff Writer, VOHP
When Rosemarie and I began our work in the southern freedom movement in the fall of 1961, Anne Braden was well known to the movement community. Her powerful book, The Wall Between, had been published three years earlier, telling the story of how Anne and her husband, Carl, had shared a dangerous and courageous decision with an African American couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade. The Wades, who were friends of the Bradens, needed more adequate housing for their growing family, and were ready to challenge Louisville’s segregated housing practices. In 1954, Anne and Carl purchased a house in a segregated white community and immediately re-sold it to the Wades, bringing down the wrath of local white supremacists who used legal and extralegal weapons to threaten both couples.
In the atmosphere of the south at that time, Rose and I knew that Anne and Carl were considered “traitors” to the racist white “way of life” of the region and that they were targeted for physical, juridical, economic and social retaliation. We also knew that the Braden’s progressive political beliefs and associations had left them open to one of the Cold War’s major weapons against progressive, courageous, white people who were working to break down segregation and build a new society beyond the walls of racial separation and in spite of the threats of white terrorism. That status-quo weapon was called “red-baiting”, labeling people like the Bradens as “communists” and “communist sympathizers,” warning potential allies against associating with them.
By the time we moved into Mennonite House (a combination freedom movement center and Mennonite Church-sponsored interracial voluntary service center) in Atlanta, where Rose and I were co-directors, Carl Braden had been imprisoned on a charge of “sedition” against the state of Kentucky for the house sale. Some people in the freedom movement were trying to decide how best to respond to the charges of “communism” being leveled against the Bradens. As Anne traveled through the south and around the country, telling the story of their struggle for justice — which combined Civil Rights and Civil Liberties — and seeking to rally support, we eventually invited her to spend some time at Mennonite House.
In a sense we had established Mennonite House for the Anne Bradens of the world. In addition to the volunteers who lived at the house and worked in various social service and civil rights organizations in Atlanta, we wanted our doors to be open to those workers for a just and compassionate society who needed a place to rest, to find community, to heal their wounds and to share their stories — and to break bread with us at the large round table we had built for the beloved community.
On one of her trips to Atlanta — perhaps it was one where she was requesting a statement of support for Carl’s freedom from our friend, Martin Luther King, who lived around the corner — we met Anne for the first time. As we sat together with others and later as the three of us shared our stories alone, Rosemarie and I knew we had met a sister, and we knew that we were meant to hold onto each other, both in spite of and because of the attacks that were constantly waged against her. On deep levels, we felt the sense of loneliness that sometimes seemed to surround her, and we were especially grateful and pleased when Martin King resisted many contrary pressures and told Anne he would allow his name to be used in a petition on behalf of Carl.
Beyond that initial coming together at Mennonite House we shared many other sittings and sharings and workings together with Anne Braden. Our mutual deep love and respect for Ella J. Baker, that great mother/teacher of the movement, offered occasions for us to be together, especially as we worked with Ms. Baker’s magnificent band of young, nonviolent warriors in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were constantly impressed by the way in which these two extraordinary women of the south cared for and about each other, sharpened and challenged each other, and helped us anticipate the world we were creating together.
Over the years, through the pain and sorrow of the illness and death of Anne’s young daughter, and then the passing of her husband, Carl, Rosemarie and I sensed the strengthening of our bond with Anne. Learning from Anne’s calm wisdom as the movement community went through the necessary trauma and necessary growth of Black Power and Black Consciousness, we continued to recognize the ongoing emergence of a woman of great wisdom and power. So when we conceived of the Veterans of Hope Project, we knew that Ann needed to be one of our earliest interviewees, partly as a radiant announcement of the liberating truth that none of us needs to remain locked in the prison of our past if we are willing to move with audacious courage toward the freedom that awaits us.
All of our shared history and hope seemed to come together when I received this note from Anne, shortly after the passing of Rosemarie:
I want you to know how much both you and Rosemarie meant and mean in my life. You would not know, I think, because I never find time to communicate, but I feel very close to you both — I’ll never forget the manner in which you and Rosemarie befriended Carl and me at a time when so many people refused (and were afraid) to associate with us. And I especially remember how loving Rosemarie was in that period. One never forgets things like that. In more recent years, I have felt that you and Rosemarie were (and are) two of the people on this whole earth who were someway my kindred souls. Even though we have so rarely been in actual physical contact, I have just felt better about this world knowing you are in it. And I know now that Rosemarie is still here for me and for so many others. I’ll write more soon from home. I love you both.
We are so grateful for Anne’s life, for her witness and for her continuing example to the generations coming on.
Vincent Harding, Co-founder and Chairperson
The Veterans of Hope Project
You always knew something was wrong. And I honestly think that’s true. I believe southern whites growing up in that time always knew something was wrong. And, you know, there have been a lot of books written about this. I mean, what happened to white southerners — either people faced this at some point or they went crazy, or they did something. You talk about a sick society. I know when I used to go home when my family was still living in Alabama, I wouldn’t have time to get a cup of coffee until mother was telling me about who was in the insane asylum, who had run off with whose wives, who had embezzled the bank, who had gotten so alcoholic they couldn’t go to their job anymore. I mean it was one disaster after another. Now you can’t say all of that came from the society. People do have their problems. I guess in the best society we’ll have people with problems. But you know it was just amazing to me. It just does something to people to live in a society like that and not ever face it and deal with it.
I grew up, you see, in a totally racially segregated society. I assumed growing up as a child, I mean I didn’t even think about it I guess, that this was the way things had always been and always would be. By the way, my family never had African American servants. There was a woman who would come one day a week and help mother clean the house and wash clothes. She would bring her daughter sometimes. And she would sit waiting for her in the kitchen. You know, I’d look at that…and they got our hand-me-down clothes, right? And I’d look at her, and she was fatter than I was and they never quite fit. And I’d look at her, you know, and I know something happened to me when I looked at her. It just did. Because there was just something… Of course they couldn’t come in our living room or come and sit down and eat, that sort of thing? You just knew something was wrong. You knew something was wrong. And I am convinced that was a reality in our lives.
I mean there were the pictures on the Sunday School wall of the children of all colors. They still use that picture sometimes. You know, sitting around Jesus? Brown, black, white, you know? You’d look at that and that’s not the way the Sunday School class looked, right? I mean you’re bound to notice that. I am a cradle Episcopalian, grew up in a little Episcopal church. And I’m very active today in a small Episcopal church where I live in Louisville. But my journey from my childhood to that little Episcopal church is not exactly a straight line.
I, in various looking around for things to do, I had become involved somewhat, by meetings I had gone to and things the Civil Rights Congress was doing. One of the things they were doing was fighting the many, many cases of terror in the south in that period. Things that were aimed at African American veterans coming back from World War II wanting to exercise some of the freedom they thought they had fought for. There were some bad things happened. Also a number of, what came to be called “legal lynchings.” The old fashioned kind of lynching was on the decline, although that did happen too. But courtrooms were lynching people. One of them was a man named Willie McGee in Mississippi who had been framed, many of us were convinced and I still am, on a charge of raping a white woman, which was the worst thing you could be charged with.
There was a movement of white women in the thirties called Southern Women Against Lynching or something. Because this kind of oppression–more than oppression, it was killing of black men. The excuse for it was to protect so called “white womanhood.” The whole myth of white womanhood and the part that it played in the south at that time. So these white women–this was long before my day; I don’t think I ever really met any of them, but I read about them later and began to identify with that tradition–were white women who said, “Thank you just the same, we’ll protect ourselves. We’re tired of being used as an excuse to kill black men.” I mean, that was the message.
They were getting ready to electrocute Willie McGee in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Congress had been carrying on a campaign. It became a national campaign. They were getting delegations of white women to go to Mississippi to try to talk to white women in Mississippi to get them to speak out against what was this great injustice, as a lot of us saw it.
And I went to a meeting and heard one of these women talk who had been on this delegation. I’d never done anything. I was really not dry behind the ears. Had just gotten into things, never done anything like this before in my life and I decided I wanted to go. So I signed up to go. And I went down to Mississippi on the last delegation on the Willie McGee case on a weekend. He was executed the following Monday, we were not successful in stopping that. Our mission was to…not to, it was too late to talk to other white women in the state. We were to see the governor that day. Jackson was a garrison state that day. There were state police. There were rumors that African Americans were coming in from all over the countryside to protest that day. There had been a lot of organization there around this case. People were coming. People who had come down from Memphis, blacks and some whites from Memphis.
So there were all these police in the street and we were headed for the capital and they stopped us, wanting to know where we were going. I said, “We’re going to see the governor.” “Oh no, nobody is seeing the governor of Mississippi today!” We tried to explain that we were there on an important mission. So they took us into what they called “protective custody.” Took us to jail. And we spent the day in jail. It was the first time I’d ever been in jail.
They were mumbling about all these outsiders coming into Mississippi and we didn’t understand about Mississippi and, you know, just muttering like people will do in a situation like that. Anyhow, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I said, “Well I don’t really think I’m an outsider.” I said, “I was a child in Jackson. First thing I remember is being in Jackson, Mississippi and Columbus. I grew up in Alabama.” And I said, “But I lived in Mississippi for a number of years and I’m ashamed of this state today.”
He got absolutely furious. It’s the whole traitor thing. He was so furious and he said, “And you’re in here, and you’re a southerner, and you’re on this thing!?” And he turned around like he was going to hit me, but he didn’t because this other cop stopped him. So he didn’t. But all of a sudden that was a very revealing moment to me. Because all of my life police had been on my side. I didn’t think of it that way but I didn’t bother about police and they didn’t bother you, you know, in the world where I grew up. Except maybe if you were speeding they might stop you, and if you talked to them real nice they wouldn’t give you a ticket. All of a sudden I realized that I was on the other side. He had said, “You’re not a real southern woman.” And I said, “No, I guess I’m not your kind of southern woman.”
Very early in that stage I had this letter from a man that I bet you most of you have not heard of, possibly, named William L. Patterson. He was an African American, fighter. He headed, at that time, a thing called the Civil Rights Congress. But he wrote this letter. Number one, and this isn’t the main point, but he told me that I didn’t need to be going around talking at the black churches. That I ought to be talking at the white churches. That’s the first time I heard that message. And I’ve been preaching that ever since.
But then he said, “You know, you do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” He said, “There is another America.” And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, he said, “It’s always been here. Ever since the first slave ship arrived, and before. The people who struggled against slavery, the people who rebeled against slavery. The white people who supported them. The people who all through Reconstruction struggled.” He came on down through history of the people who have struggled against injustice. The other America.
Sometimes people will say just what you need to hear at that point. I was very young. And that’s what I needed to hear. And that’s what I felt like I joined.
I will not sit here and tell you I’m not racist. That I may not do something racist tomorrow. It’s just a part of the way you react and live. And I may, but I don’t sit around — there’s no graduation certificate in this struggle. But I don’t sit around feeling guilty about it, because I think guilt is a really immobilizing emotion. I just hope somebody will tell me if I do something that’s not…that doesn’t make sense. And they usually do. But I don’t think that this country as a whole has come to terms with that yet. I think it was started that way in the sixties.
Let me quote my friend C.T. Vivian. He said, “You know what really happened in the sixties?” And C.T., as you probably found out, is a theologian. An intellectual, a theologian as well as an activist. He said, “You know it’s really true what is says in the Bible, that you have to repent of your sins before you can be saved.” Now I always had trouble with… when I say this to some audiences I have to say, “You may have to translate this in your own terms. But just listen because it’s true.” He said, “Well that’s true of an individual and it’s also true of a society.” He said, “What really happened in the sixties was that this country took just the first step toward admitting that it had been wrong on race. And creativity burst out in all directions.” It really did.
What we had to go through was coming to terms with the fact that our society (the one that had nurtured us and been pretty good to us, been pretty good to me), and the people, our family, our friends, the people we loved — and as I say I never quit loving them — were just plain wrong. That is painful. You really have to turn yourself inside out. It’s like, you don’t want to say your own government is wrong. People have problems with that, because they project their ego to their government.
And I thought about it, Vincent, a lot during the sixties when a lot of people were having to come to terms with the fact that their government in Washington was wrong in what it was doing in southeast Asia. People went through tortures about that. A lot of the young people that decided to resist the draft, to go to Canada, to do this sort of thing, they went through a lot. But the interesting thing I noticed was I never encountered one white southerner who was active in the Civil Rights Movement who had any problem with that at all. Because we had been through it all before. Once you figured out those people in Alabama were wrong it wasn’t much jump to figure out the people in Washington were wrong. And it wasn’t any great emotional tear. So maybe you don’t have to go through it but once, but realizing that your society is wrong.As I say, you have to turn yourself inside out. What I’ve realized since is, that it’s a very painful process, but it is not destructive. It’s the road to liberation.
There’s a huge debate as you know going on now about has school desegregation failed. That’s an interesting question because, you know, it has not brought the promise a lot of us thought it would. I mean with the 1954 decision we all thought that the thing was over…we thought the black and white kids were going to be going to school together the next fall. I wasn’t the only one who thought that. Because I believed profoundly in desegregation and integration. And yet I know, pretty well I think (as much as a white person can), what some of the African American parents are talking about in Louisville, for example, where there just almost saying, “Give us back our schools we had, because it hasn’t worked. Our kids are not getting an education,” which they’re not. They are being discriminated against with the whole assignment plan, the way it works. And there is a certain romanticism that we can go back to those good schools we had before. But I can understand this feeling.
I think when you say, has desegregation in the schools at least (and some other things) failed, it was never tried. To me it was never tried. I think that throughout the south it was implemented by people who did not want it to work, who didn’t believe in it, who sabotaged from the beginning. I know that happened in Louisville. So it’s hard to say whether it might have worked.
The way that desegregation in the schools (and I think this applies to a lot of things) was implemented was inherently racist. Although we didn’t think of it that way and we, a lot of us who were white, you have to learn a lot about racism as you go along and what it all means. When you really think about it, the Supreme Court decision of 1954, was necessary. I’m glad it happened. But in a way that was a racist decision. I mean, it was based on certain premises of racism. Because the assumption was that what is white is better; that these white schools are better. Therefore if we put the little black children in the white schools they will get a better education.
And one thing that the African Americans are saying now, when they say “give us back our black schools,” they remember some things about those schools. And I know something about those pre-desegregation schools because my kids went to…because we had just begun very token desegregation in Louisville when my kids started to school. And because of where we lived, they just went to the district where they lived and they were definitely the minority. My son was the only white child in school for a while. It was a really good school. There was a spirit there that I don’t see in the schools now. There was something about a lot of the African American schools–and this is what people really miss–of teachers that really cared about children and loved them. The facilities may not have been as good. So when you look back you think that those African American schools had something to give to a combined school system, too. And if it could have just been seen that way, that everybody…you had something from both sides. That was not recognized at all. The particular value that people are now searching for–where we’ve lost the caring nature of the schools and so forth.
What that also illustrates is, too often when we’ve thought of integration without analyzing it enough, what we’ve really meant is bringing people of color into a society that is dominated by whites.
Anne Braden. The Wall Between, (original edition 1958), Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
Anne Braden. “Uphill All the Way,” They Took Their Stand, edited by Emma Gelders Sterne, NY: Crowell-Collier Press, 1968
Catherine Fosl. Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, Palgrave McMillan Ltd, New York, 2002.
A biography of Anne Braden in which the author demonstrates how racism, sexism, and anticommunism intersected in the twentieth-century South. In the book, Braden’s story connects southern reform drives of the 1930s and 1940s to the mass civil rights movement of the 1960s and to the continuation of racial justice campaigns today.
Catherine Fosl. “There Was no Middle Ground”: Anne Braden and the Southern Social Justice Movement.” NWSA Journal (National Women’s Studies Association Journal) 11.3 (1999) 24-48.
The article is essentially biographical, framing Anne Braden’s political transformation; early activism; Kentucky sedition case and; overall contribution to racial change in the postworld war II South, in terms of race, gender, class and place.
The Carl and Anne Braden Papers, Special Collections, Hoskins Library, The University of Tennessee Knoxville, Knoxville, TN , 73996-4000, USA link
The manuscript collection includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, news letters, financial records, mailing lists and court records relating to their work with the Southern Conference Educational Fund SCEF and the civil rights program in general.
Rostan, June, “Inside-Out and Upside-Down: An Interview with Anne Braden in Color Liners, (Spring 2001), Vol.4, no.1 link
Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, executive producer Betsy Brinson, Ph.D. Presented by the Kentucky Oral History Commission of the Kentucky Historical Society (Available from the Kentucky Historical Society) link