Remembering Anne Braden
David Nolan is an historian in St. Augustine, Florida. His books include Fifty Feet in Paradise, the story of Florida’s extravagant land booms and busts. He was active in the civil rights movement, and wrote for The Southern Patriot when Anne Braden was editor.
I’m still waiting to see the New York Times obituary for Anne Braden. I’ve been waiting since the day after her death on March 6 at the age of 81.
They’re either preparing a really thorough one, or they’ve completely missed someone who—in her own lifetime—deservedly became an American icon, and whose passing followed closely on the heels of her friends Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.
Anne Braden and her husband Carl were two of the most hated people of the 1950s and 1960s by the powers-that-were in the American south. As whites of impeccable southern credentials, they gave lie to the myth that all southern whites opposed the civil rights movement—and that drove the racists wild.
The favorite rap against civil rights supporters at the time was that they were Yankees—"outside agitators." You certainly couldn’t use that charge against the Bradens. Carl, born in 1914, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Anne was born there a decade later. She spent her childhood in Mississippi and Alabama, and went to college in Virginia. Anne had all the skills—but none of the fatuousness—of a southern belle.
The Bradens first came to national attention in 1954 when they sold a house in a white neighborhood to a black family. Think back to those times, and you can imagine the response: the house was bombed. In the twisted logic that made "Southern justice" an oxymoron, Carl was charged with the bombing and sent to prison. He served seven months of a 15-year sentence before the verdict was thrown out by a higher court.
Anne wrote a book about the case, called The Wall Between, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1958 and still reads movingly nearly half a century later. My paperback copy of it sports a blurb on the back cover from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Once the Bradens were on the radar screen, they became perennial targets for demagogic politicians. One year, Louie Nunn ran for governor on a platform of driving the Bradens out of Kentucky. He won, but the Bradens stayed put ‘til their deaths. They will be longer and better remembered in Kentucky—and American—history than the former governor.
The charge they liked to use against the Bradens—since "nigger loving" lost its legal standing once you got to federal court—was "sedition." It was an infinitely expandable, one-size-fits-all charge, meaning "we don’t like you."
The Bradens faced it again and again, and became quite adept at fighting it. Then, having learned those skills, they turned them to the defense of others. They pioneered a combination of legal and publicity actions that derailed many attempted railroadings of activists around the south.
Their organizational base, going into the 1960s, was the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), the last remnant of a New Deal-era group whose initial meeting in Birmingham in 1938 was busted up by Bull Connor—the same Bull Connor whose use of police dogs, firehoses and cattle prods against civil rights demonstrators in 1963 outraged the world. Some villains never change their stripes. It was appropriate that Anne Braden was one of the southern whites singled out for praise by Martin Luther King in his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
I first met Anne in 1965 in Lawrenceville, Virginia, when she came to write a story about the Virginia Students’ Civil Rights Committee. SCEF published a newspaper called The Southern Patriot , and historians of the future can refer to it if they want to see the kind of news the regular southern press was not covering at the time. Her piece was light years better than anything that ever ran in the daily press, and of course we reprinted it in large numbers to use for fundraising.
The Bradens had to put up with a lot—and not just from diehard segregationists. The notoriety they acquired in many battles led southern "moderates" and liberals to shun them as well. As the movement grew in the 1960s, young recruits were regularly grilled about their attitudes towards the Bradens. Those who spoke well of them would be threatened with a cut-off of support. It was a litmus test, if you will.
This did not sit well with my generation. We judged people based on what they did, and we saw and liked what the Bradens did. Those who preached "don’t trust anyone over 30" found in them definite exceptions. I’m sure you could say they were substitute parents, if you took a psychological view of history.
They taught a new generation the importance of civil liberties as well as civil rights. Many of us kept dog-eared copies of Anne’s insightful "The Southern Freedom Movement in Perspective," which ran as a special issue of Monthly Review in 1965—as well as her pamphlet "HUAC: Bulwark of Segregation," about the notorious (and ultimately abolished) House Un-American Activities Committee, always populated, it seemed, by the most retrograde of legislators.
Carl Braden died in 1975, before the white south ever forgave him. Anne labored on—and on, and on and on. Once dubbed "rebel without a pause," she attended a Washington demonstration in a wheelchair after she had turned 80. She instructed a doctor putting a cast on her broken elbow to do it in such a way that she could still type: there were letters to be written, articles to be done, press releases, leaflets—typical Anne.
She lived long enough to see the tide turn. From outcast she became hero. Her deeds were celebrated on a historic marker. She was given honorary degrees and asked to teach at universities. I’m sure her students learned a lot. One of my memories of visiting the Bradens’ modest home was of heavily-weighted bookshelves lining the walls—and every volume on those shelves was stamped with the name of Mississippi Senator Jim Eastland’s noxious Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which had once seized the Braden library in its search for "sedition."
Catherine Fosl wrote a biography of Anne, appropriately titled Subversive Southerner, and Deric Gilliard included her in his book Living in the Shadows of a Legend. I am sure that others will follow, because the Bradens kept wonderful archives that will be mined by historians for years to come.
I think the thing that must have most pleased Anne was her induction into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and having her picture placed in the African-American Heritage Center. She was, after all, white. But she realized, as strongly as anyone of her times, that the civil rights movement had freed whites as well as blacks. In the old days, she used to say, the problem in the south was not liberal thought or conservative thought, it was no thought. It took a kind of police state to maintain racial segregation, and that damaged everyone. The glory of Anne Braden’s life was the role she played in dismantling that system.
I’m still waiting to read about it in the New York Times obituary. Perhaps they are waiting until April 23, when a service honoring Anne Braden will be held at Memorial Auditorium in Louisville . . .