Anne Braden vs. white supremacy: The South’s rebel without a pause

Anne 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, Ky., 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 1964.

A subsequent grand jury investigation concentrated not on the neighborhood’s harassment of the Wades, but instead 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, but the sedition charges left the Bradens pariahs, branded as radicals and “reds” in the Cold War South. 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 1950s 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.

Carl and Anne Braden during their 1954 trial on sedition charges stemming from their sale of a house in a white suburb to a Black family. | Kentucky Educational Television

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 ’60s and was 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-1970s.

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, Anne Braden: The Southern Patriot.

The remembrance presented below is by Heather Gray, an Atlanta-based journalist and activist whose political development was intensely shaped, on a personal level, by Anne Braden. The text has been slightly altered from an earlier version published by Political Affairs in May 2015.

via SPLC

Regarding Southern white resistance to white supremacy, the story of Anne Braden is perhaps one of the most important contemporary depictions of it all. Along with other Southern women like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, she was a giant in the civil rights movement. Her biographer, Cate Fosl, wisely said about Anne, “Hers was 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 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that she was “the most amazing white woman” for her dedication to civil rights. And when Anne and her husband, Carl, were being maligned as communists during the height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham declared that in no way would 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 following her death at the age of 81 in 2006 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 1950s, 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 article in the paper 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.

Anne Braden protesting South African apartheid in the 1980s.

“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.”

Like hundreds of white and Black activists throughout the South and the country, I am honored to acknowledge that I am one of Anne’s “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 in the southeast that I helped put together back in 1987. Organizing the tour in seven states helped me considerably in subsequent work against apartheid and in learning more about the Southern region and its activists. Anne knew this would happen of course!

She drew upon those contacts and expertise to intensify and expand the work. I remember in the 1980s when I was in an Atlanta hospital for a major operation, just out of the recovery room, and the phone rang. 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 Rev. 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. 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’d 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 Rev. C.T. Vivian, Jack O’Dell, Gwen Patton, Virginia Durr, Rev. Fred Taylor, Rev. James Orange, Connie Tucker, John Zippert, Jackie Ward, Rev. 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.

Still fighting: A mugshot from one of Anne Braden’s later arrests, this time in 1996.

I remember several 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 surprised her that she would be acknowledged in this way and that she always expected, 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 was liberating. She said that once white people have wrenched themselves 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, but which, given the country’s historically white supremacist orientation, is simply not applied.

The introductory summary of the life of Anne Braden was developed by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and the Carl Braden Memorial Center.

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Heather Gray
Heather Gray

Heather Gray is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national, and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 25 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta.