She was an educated white Southerner well schooled in traditional ladyhood who saw her privilege as a prison.
Anne Braden’s working-class husband, Carl, was, like her, a newspaper reporter in Louisville, Ky. By 1954, the Bradens, six years married with one child, were a team working for social justice in a very inhospitable place and time. The South was frozen in legal racial segregation and any attempts at change were smeared as Communist-inspired, inflaming white supremacists even more. So it was no small act of courage for Anne and Carl to say yes when Andre Wade IV, a black veteran of World War II, came looking for white people to front his purchase of a house in a “restricted” area.
Reprisals were swift and violent. Wade’s family faced a vicious campaign that included a rock thrown through a window bearing a note with “Nigger, get out,” a cross-burning and dynamite. The ruse uncovered, the Bradens were hauled into court as “subversives,” charged with sedition. Whatever her political ideas were before this event, the trial that September propelled Anne Braden into lifelong activism. The focus of the case slipped away from racially segregated housing or violence against the Wade family toward what the Bradens read and the organizations they belonged to.
She resisted vehemently, attacking the court’s right to inquire into such private issues and making the first of many stands for civil liberties. In her deeply sexist society she wrote later, “The woman was considered not as dangerous”; only Carl got jail time when they were convicted. He served seven months of his 15-year sentence, but the legal wrangling continued for years until the law was overturned.
“The Wall Between,” Anne’s political memoir about the Wade case, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1958.
She never wrote another book, but as years passed, her journalistic gifts were put to use editing a church-sponsored magazine where a rising civil rights movement ignored by mainstream media was chronicled. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and organizer Ella Baker, she witnessed the field plowed by a few in the 1950s become a mass movement in the 1960s. Refusing to be chased from her Louisville home, she lived with danger and threats, shunned by her neighbors, criticized by her family.
In 1975 Carl died, but the small-framed, gray-haired 50-year-old kept going strong, a fixture and a feature at every rally for every good cause, from strip mining to gay rights, for three more decades. She died in March this year.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].
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