Anne Braden, who died in March at age 81, was not as famous as Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King. But her contributions to social change in our country were just as important as theirs, and for many her example was just as inspiring.
Anne Braden was a white Southerner. She was born in Louisville, Ky., and raised in Anniston, Ala., in a fairly well-off Episcopalian family during the 1920s and ’30s, when segregation and white supremacy were pervasive and virtually unquestioned. After college in Virginia, she returned to Alabama as a newspaper reporter. In later years, Braden often said that covering the Birmingham courthouse, where unequal justice was handed out according to skin color, was what really radicalized her.
When she took a job at the (now defunct) Louisville Times, Braden began to find ways to act on her growing outrage at racial injustice. She met and married Carl Braden, who at the time was the labor reporter at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Carl was from a working-class southern Indiana family, and through his involvement with the labor movement was connected with a network of left-wing activists in the city—the remnants of the New Deal era’s communist-led Popular Front.
Anne Braden’s first public political act came through those connections. In an interview available on the Veterans of Hope Web site, Braden recalls that, in 1952, she traveled with a delegation of white women to Jackson, Miss., to protest plans to execute Willie McGee. McGee was a black man widely believed (outside Mississippi) to have been framed for the rape of a white woman. The women asked to see the governor. They were, instead, placed in “protective custody” for the day. While in jail Braden spoke with a police officer who became very angry that a Southern white woman was defending a black man. “He turned around like he was going to hit me,” Braden recalled, “but he didn’t because this other cop stopped him.... All of my life, police had been on my side.... All of a sudden I realized that I was on the other side.”
About that same time, Braden said she received a letter from William Patterson, a Communist Party organizer and head of the Civil Rights Congress that had organized the McGee defense. Patterson told her, “You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.”
FOR THE NEXT 54 years, Anne Braden was a solid citizen of “the other America.” In 1954, she and Carl bought a house in an all-white Louisville suburb and signed it over to a black family who lived there. The house was destroyed by a bomb (the black family escaped unharmed). Carl Braden was charged with sedition. The prosecution argued that Braden and his communist friends had blown up the house to provoke a confrontation that would further their goal of overthrowing the government of the United States and of Kentucky. Carl served several months in prison before the conviction was overturned on appeal.
From that point on, both Bradens were unemployable in the America of power and privilege. They became full-time activists for civil rights, economic justice, and peace. (Carl Braden died in 1975.) They had their most widespread and enduring impact as directors of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). Continuing into the late 1970s, SCEF funded and supported organizers working with grassroots organizations around the South and published a newspaper, The Southern Patriot, which Anne Braden edited.
When I was 19, the first full-time radical activist that I met was a SCEF worker. A native Mississippian like me, he was, among other things, organizing local support for the United Farm Workers lettuce boycott. He gave me a copy of The Southern Patriot. I didn’t know Anne Braden personally. But any white Southerner who joined “the other side” any time in the past 50 years was directly affected by her, and I’m no exception.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His book, Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, was published this spring by Paulist Press. For more information about Anne Braden’s life and legacy, visit Veterans of Hope (veteransofhope.org), and subversivesoutherner.com, maintained by Braden’s biographer Catherine Fosl.