A civil-rights fixture in Louisville for more than five decades, Anne Braden fought tirelessly for desegregated schools, open housing, equal policing, gay rights and racial tolerance.
Braden -- feisty, tenacious and often controversial -- died shortly after 5 a.m. yesterday at Louisville's Jewish Hospital. She was 81.
Although branded as a communist, arrested for sedition and denounced by politicians, Braden continued to attend peace marches and public meetings, write press releases and organize demonstrations even after turning 80.
Anne Braden, shown in 1999, organized and attended protests even after turning 80. (Photo: Bill Luster, The Courier-Journal)
She recently awoke a fellow activist twice between 2 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. to check on a protest.
"She was the conscience of this community," said Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville.
Braden was admitted to the hospital Saturday and doctors diagnosed pneumonia and dehydration, said Catherine Fosl, Braden's biographer.
Fosl said she was unaware of an exact cause of death but said Braden's health had been deteriorating.
Braden and her husband, Carl Braden, gained national attention in 1954 when they bought a house for an African-American couple in an all-white neighborhood near Shively.
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 between the races and to promote communism -- charges the Bradens denied. Carl's eventual conviction was later overturned.
The case prompted the Bradens to be shunned by both the white community and some civil-rights activists who worried that associating with the couple would taint their cause.
"I apologized to her recently," said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP. "Part of the shunning was done by the adult branch of the NAACP."
Anne Braden, right, and Ann S. Reynolds escorted the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he visited Louisville in 2000. Braden was an early supporter of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr., The Courier-Journal)
Platform for issues
But Fosl said the incident gave the Bradens a platform to push for an array of civil-rights issues. The pair worked with key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., who praised Anne Braden in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
The controversy also brought the American Civil Liberties Union to Kentucky as a way to help support the Bradens' legal defense.
The couple were jailed again on sedition charges in 1967, this time in Pike County, 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, a federal appeals court declared the state's sedition law unconstitutional.
In the early 1970s, Anne and her husband were vocal supporters of Angela Davis, a Communist Party member who was accused of helping three convicts -- members of the Black Panthers -- attempt an escape from a California courtroom. Four people died in a shootout, including the judge.
Activists met in Chicago after Davis was acquitted and formed the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression. Local branches were formed, including the Kentucky Alliance, one of several organizations in which Anne Braden was active until her death.
Carl Braden died in 1975, but Anne went on to support a variety of causes, including busing to desegregate Jefferson County's public schools. Opponents of busing twice set her cars on fire.
Since then, she's spoken out on a range of issues, including gay rights, Rubbertown pollution and police shootings of black residents. She taught classes on civil rights and social-justice history at Northern Kentucky University and at the University of Louisville.
Even after turning 80, Braden continued to show up at local council meetings and protests. She attended an antiwar march in Washington last fall, riding in a wheelchair amid thousands of marchers.
She sometimes sat in elected officials' offices until they agreed to hear her, said Alice Wade, coordinator of the Kentucky Alliance.
Friends said she was so absorbed in her work that she rarely took care of herself. At age 81, she still smoked, drank coffee, worked late and often slept on an office couch at the Kentucky Alliance.
Fellow activist Mattie Jones said she saw Braden on Friday and thought her longtime friend didn't look well. But Braden told her she had work to do.
"She said, 'I'm too busy to talk. I've got a deadline,' " Jones said.
That was typical, Braden's friend said. Jones recalled how once when Braden fell and broke her elbow, she told Jones that she intended to order the orthopedist to construct her cast to free her to type.
"She was fired by such a sense of obligation. She wouldn't take time for herself," said Suzy Post, former head of the ACLU of Kentucky and founder of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
That obligation was rooted in her childhood, friends said.
Braden was born in Anniston, Ala., in 1924. Her father was a "committed racist" in a segregationist family, said Fosl, a University of Louisville professor who wrote "Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South."
At Virginia's Stratford College during World War II, Anne Braden began to draw connections between racism and fascism. She was exposed to people such as Karl Marx, Fosl said, but it was her work as a newspaper reporter that cemented her views.
'Made a radical'
"She used to say, 'Covering the Birmingham courthouse made a radical out of me.' She saw two different systems of justice," Fosl said, where violence against blacks was ignored and violence by blacks was harshly punished.
Anne moved to Louisville to take a reporting job with the Louisville Times. She covered a court case that overturned segregation in higher education.
After marrying Carl Braden, a socialist follower and labor reporter for The Courier-Journal who introduced her to the labor movement, she quit the paper to devote herself to social issues.
"Her largest message was that racial justice is white people's business too," Fosl said. "I think she changed a lot of minds."
Although they often butted heads, Jones never doubted Braden's commitment to civil rights and justice. And she compared her loss with the recent deaths of civil-rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.
"We've lost another good warrior," Jones said.
Copyright 2006 Louisville Courier-Journal