Faithful Servant

After more than a half-century of tireless work for social justice and equality, Anne Braden seemed an unstoppable force. Sadly, the world lost her to illness this week. She died early Monday morning after being admitted to a hospital for pneumonia and dehydration.

Braden requires no introduction in civil rights circles. The notable beginning of her long tenure of activism and advocacy was in 1954, when she and her husband Carl bought a house in an all-white Louisville, Kentucky neighborhood and sold it to an African-American couple. The house was subsequently firebombed; in the ensuing investigation, the Bradens' integration efforts were punished with indictments for sedition. Carl Braden was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and served time before the charges were dismissed two years later.

Anne Braden told this story in her 1958 book The Wall Between. She describes the backlash here as well:

I'd only been there a few minutes when I realized it was not the bombing that was under investigation. It was me! They began by asking me what organizations I belonged to and what books I had in my house. I'd heard that questions like those were being asked by HUAC, but I didn't expect them from the grand jury. I told them, "It's none of your business what my affiliations or reading habits are. It doesn't have a thing to do with who blew up this house."

Compiling a list of Braden's accomplishments and contributions will be a daunting task, and could never include every cause she championed and individual she inspired. It might be easier to note the rallies, speeches, and meetings she did not attend over the years rather than the multitudes she did. As recently as last September, the 81-year old was in Washington, D.C., participating in a march against the Iraq war from her wheelchair.

Braden was at the core of anti-racism work in Louisville, her home, where her funeral will be held at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Friday, and where a large memorial celebration is in the works for April 23. More information can be found at the website of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, an organization Braden founded.

Last November, Braden gave the keynote address at the 25th anniversary banquet for the Greensboro Justice Fund in Northampton, Massachusetts. She had an intimate knowledge of the Nov. 3, 1979 Klan/Nazi violence in Greensboro, calling it "a turning point in our country's struggle against racism." In a Fall 1999 article for "Southern Exposure", the magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, Braden wrote:

The CWP scheduled a funeral march for Sunday, November 11. I did not know any of the CWP people, but I was a product of the civil-rights movement, where it was understood that "when someone is killed, you go." I left a conference in Nashville Saturday night to drive over the mountains in the blinding rain. It was pouring rain in Greensboro, too, but almost 1000 people came out for the march, despite an intense campaign by public officials urging people to stay away. As we marched through the streets, the National Guard lined each side -- with guns pointed at us.

To think what might have happened if we had let the Klan and Nazis go unchallenged in their brazen attack on the streets of Greensboro in November of 1979 is to contemplate the unthinkable.

Braden, along with Dr. Manning Marable, Lani Guinier, Robert Meeropol and others spoke in the Bennett College chapel on Nov. 6, 1999 in a forum called "Learning the Lessons", part of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Nov. 3rd. It was during these commemoration events and the city-wide conversations they sparked that the impetus for the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, and subsequent Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was born.

Braden will be missed in Greensboro, Louisville, and around the country in ways and on occasions too numerous to count. The life model she leaves behind is one of rare commitment and dogged determination. As one of her many friends, colleagues, and admirers stated this week, "Others may succeed her, but no one can replace her."

Rest in peace, Anne Braden.

Photo by Bill Luster of The Louisville Courier-Journal; from their photo essay of Anne Braden's life and times.


The following are excerpts from Anne Braden's January 2006 article "Finding the Other America" published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I urge you to read the whole thing.

"If we are serious about the challenge of the unfinished business of racism, we must start by realizing that this is not a task we must complete. It is one we must begin.

It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.

As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it. So our first step is to turn ourselves inside out and our institutions upside down."

"In Louisville, Kentucky, where I have lived and worked for 60 years, well-intentioned white people intermittently have set up meetings between representatives of the black and white communities. It never works. Why? The median income of black families in our community is less than 50% that of whites. How can you have communication when that kind of gap exists? Instead, people who want a change in relationships must work for living wage legislation, more low-income housing, and health insurance for everyone."

"The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible. Often those of us who think we have seen the light on race tend to sit and examine our own souls. That may be a good thing for us to do and it may make us feel better, but it is not going to bring one iota of change in the conditions under which most people of color live or do anything to bring people together across the divide. We must speak out and act publicly and thereby break through what seems to be a solid wall of white resistance.

Today there is an added challenge. Many white people have the illusion that race is not a problem anymore. They say we can now move on to “other” issues. I call these people the colorblind crowd.

It is certainly true that our society faces many life-and-death issues. But we can’t deal effectively with any of these problems until we mount an aggressive offense against racism. This is not only morally right; it’s a practical matter. As long as our society can dump its problems on people of color it will not seek or find real solutions."

"I can testify that although this is a very painful experience it is not destructive, because once we have done it we are free. We are not really free of the racism within us because we will always see the world through white eyes, but we are free to struggle consciously against it, so it no longer shapes our lives without our even knowing it."

"In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile."

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