Published on Monday, March 13, 2006 by The Nation
A Subversive Southerner Passes
by Katrina vanden Heuvel
On Monday, March 6, when Anne Braden died, the South lost one of its most dedicated, courageous and feisty fighters for racial justice, civil liberties and economic rights.
I met Anne Braden in the early 1980s when I worked for ABC's "Closeup" unit, one of the last serious documentary divisions at a news network. Our crew spent a week in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewing Anne--and those who had supported, shunned and persecuted her in the 1950s--for The American Inquisition, an hour-long documentary about the impact of the McCarthy era on our nation's politics and society. (It aired in 1983.)
I remember trying to get Anne Braden to tell us about how she came to her radical politics. Some of it was her father, she said. He had been, in Anne's telling--a "committed racist" in a segregationist family. But much of it, as her unusually revealing memoirs The Wall Between explained, came from her work as a newspaper reporter, covering the Birmingham courthouse. That, she told us, "made a radical out of me." As her biographer, Catherine Fosl remembers, Anne explained that seeing "two different systems of justice," where violence against blacks was ignored and violence by blacks was harshly punished, moved her to live a life of radicalism and agitation.
Anne and Carl Braden gained national attention in 1954 when they bought a house for an African-American couple in an all-white neighborhood in Shively, a suburb of Lousiville. As the Lousiville Courier-Journal obituary reports, "In the resulting backlash, assailants shot out the windows, burned a cross in the yard and bombed the house, though no one was hurt. Anne and Carl Braden were charged with sedition and accused of planning the explosion to stir up trouble and to promote Communism--charges the Bradens denied. Carl Braden's eventual conviction was later overturned."
But for many years, as Fosl's invaluable biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and The Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, reminds us, these charges left the Bradens pariahs, "branded as radicals and 'reds' in the Cold War South."
But the Bradens never slowed down. In fact, sedition charges were brought against them again in 1967, this time in Pike County, Kentucky, where they were accused of being communists trying to overthrow the county government. (They had been helping a couple protest strip mining.) "Before the Bradens could be tried," the Journal reported, "a federal appeals court declared Kentucky's sedition law unconstitutional."
For her courageous work, and early stands against segregation, Anne Braden was one of only five white southerners commended by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his historic 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
In the late 1950s, into the 1970s, Anne Braden traveled throughout the South, chronicling racial injustices and the struggles they provoked for the Southern Patriot monthly newspaper, which she edited from 1957-73. She and her husband Carl, who died in 1975, were also generous mentors to a generation of Southern activists.
When she was named, not long ago, to the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, Anne Braden said: "The battle goes on as far as I'm concerned. You can't give up."
She lived what she preached. "As feisty and dedicated as ever," Fosl writes, "Braden joined other Lousiville activists last fall on buses bound for the anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC even though she was in a wheelchair."
Anne Braden's 1958 book, The Wall Between, was recently reisssued with a 40-page epilogue by the University of Tennessee.
For those who wish to continue Anne Braden's work, donations can be made to the Carl Braden Memorial Center, 3208 West Broadway, Louisville,Kentucky, 40211. Or, make gifts and contributions to the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
And for a new generation of subversive Southerners--and Americans--I recommend that you buy a few copies of Catherine Fosl's biography of Anne Braden.(Share with your relatives, colleagues and anyone in need of some inspiration these days.)
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2006 The Nation