Ky. Voices: Anne Braden, fearless soldier for civil rights

Kentuckian called 'race traitor' in push for equality, justice

February 24, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Film screening: Southern Patriot

    When: 6 pm Thursday

    Where: Lexington Public Library, Farish Theater, 140 East Main Street

    Cost: Free

  • Kentucky Voices

    About the authors: Catherine Fosi, author of Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, is an associate professor at the University of Louisville College of Arts & Sciences. Carla Wallace is a co-founder of the Fairness Campaign and helps facilitate Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice.

Most people think of our country's long struggle for racial justice as a "black thing."

The names we know best are African-American, and that is as it should be.

But the movement for civil and human rights in the United States has also had some whites who stood and still stand alongside African-Americans in demanding an end to all racial discrimination.

Kentucky's own Anne Braden (1924-2006) was one such stalwart.

In his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. named Anne as one of only five white southerners he could rely on as an ally. Her work for racial justice continued for more than 55 years.

Yet she has never been a celebrity. Too many in Kentucky, especially those under 45, have never even heard of her.

Braden taught some of us who are white that racism is our issue, too. She said repeatedly that it's "not something we're called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because, in truth, they do."

She pointed out that as long as race could be used to get a majority of white Americans to oppose efforts for a more just society, there will be no hope of ending poverty, homelessness, environmental destruction, inequality, or of making the kind of transformative change necessary if democracy is to be real in our nation.

She showed us that not just democracy, but our very humanity, is tied to refusing to be silent in the face of the devastating reality of racism in the lives of people of color.

On Thursday, the Central Kentucky premier of a new movie, Southern Patriot highlights her dramatic but little-known story.

Begun in collaboration with Braden in the final years of her life, the film by Appalshop filmmakers Anne Lewis and Mimi Pickering is a first-person documentary exploring the life and legacy of this extraordinary — and to some, incendiary — American civil rights leader and Louisville native.

Southern white support for equal rights for African-Americans was all too scarce in the post-WWII years when Braden came of age and pledged her commitment to racial equality. It took a rare white southerner to withstand the scorn and persecution rained on those who broke ranks with white supremacy and segregationists. Born in Louisville but raised in deep-South Alabama, Braden was such a woman.

Charged with sedition along with her husband, Carl, for attempting to desegregate a Shively suburb in 1954, Anne found infamy as a "traitor to her race."

Ostracized as a "red" in Kentucky and throughout the South, she refused to retreat from her principles. Instead she used those attacks to embark on a lifetime of dedication to racial justice that was matched by few whites in American history.

Braden's abiding theme was the responsibility of whites to combat racism. She carried that message to 1960s southern students and to generations that followed, until her death in 2006. Her radical politics always encouraged reformers to see the civil rights movement as one vital part of the transformative change necessary for this country to become truly democratic.

She was an ardent supporter of ending Eastern Kentucky strip mining, worked for an end to war and poverty and, in her later years, supported equality for same-sex loving people.

We, along with the filmmakers, are among the whites whose lives were irrevocably touched by her, and we believe that the message of her life is as relevant today as it was when we first encountered it decades ago.

If we needed any more convincing that Braden's teachings continue to be prophetic, this historic moment delivers that, and then some. The wildly off-base pronouncements of a "post-racial" America after the election of the nation's first black president have been trampled into the dirt in one of the most racialized periods in recent memory.

Race is being used with calculated precision to convince far too many white people to act against our own self-interest in a more just society.

Many of us enable with silence or inaction the systemic manifestations of racism in our schools, our justice/prison system, immigration policies, our international agenda, our media, and on and on.

This moment — when black unemployment stands at twice the rate of whites' and an unbalanced justice system is locking away hugely disproportionate numbers of young people of color — calls on all who long for a more democratic, inclusive country, to place the work for racial justice central to all our efforts.

Bring family, friends and especially youth to what may be one of the most inspiring local and national history lessons you will ever see on the screen.


Kentucky Voices

About the authors: Catherine Fosi, author of Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, is an associate professor at the University of Louisville College of Arts & Sciences. Carla Wallace is a co-founder of the Fairness Campaign and helps facilitate Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice.

Catherine Fosi, author of Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, is an associate professor at the University of Louisville College of Arts & Sciences. Carla Wallace is a co-founder of the Fairness Campaign and helps facilitate Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice.

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