Merlene Davis: Appalshop documentary focuses on Kentucky Civil Rights champion

Louisville native Anne Braden was a civil rights activist, journalist and author.
Louisville native Anne Braden was a civil rights activist, journalist and author.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned her in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. And there is a photograph of her standing with her husband, Carl Braden, behind King as he delivered a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Sept. 26, 1962.

Still, Anne Braden, who worked with many of the legendary fighters during the civil rights movement, is little known or recognized in Kentucky where she was born and where she returned to live out most of her life.

That oversight is about to be corrected.

Braden is featured in a documentary scheduled to air on KET Monday. Anne Braden: Southern Patriot provides us with a biography of the activist, journalist and writer who sacrificed a privileged life in order to fight for economic and racial justice.

She and her husband are best known for buying a home in the segregated Shively suburb of Louisville in 1954 and then selling it to a black couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, the intended owners. But she also traveled throughout the Deep South aiding and writing about the struggles of blacks to get equal consideration.

Charged along with her husband with sedition for selling the house to the Wades, Braden was also labeled a Communist and traitor to her race. The house was later fire-bombed, and the Bradens were accused of that as well.

Carl Braden was found guilty of sedition and served eight months of a 15-year sentence, before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case overruled the verdict. Anne Braden was never tried.

"Seeing her on film is pretty much who she was," said Mimi Pickering, longtime filmmaker for Appalshop. "She was opinionated and had her own ideas, but she also enjoyed talking to anybody and everybody. She was a good listener and really good with people. That was one of her strengths."

Pickering and Anne Lewis directed the documentary that was started in 2004, two years before Braden's death. Throughout the film, viewers see a selfless woman who fearlessly fought for the rights of black people as well as for the economically oppressed.

"She and Carl Braden were legendary in Eastern Kentucky where they organized for economic and environmental issues," Pickering said. "They organized to get white people to be a part of the civil rights movement and to understand that we are all in this together."

The reason her story is so compelling to me is that Braden could have had a safe and secure life simply by ignoring the injustice she saw around her. But she says in the film she couldn't do that.

Braden was born in Louisville in 1924, but grew up in Anniston, Ala., where one of the Freedom Riders' buses was later burned in 1961. After graduating from college, she became a journalist working in Birmingham and Louisville.

In 1948, she married Carl Braden, a journalist and union activist 10 years her senior. They had three children.

For years after the sedition charges, the family was harassed, prompting Braden to write The Wall Between, in 1958, which told of the uncertainties of that period and gave a personal view of white racism. It was a runner-up for the National Book Award.

Unable to find jobs in Louisville, the Bradens became field organizers for the Southern Conference Educational Fund, an organization based in New Orleans that solicited funds for the civil rights movement. Anne Braden wrote for the organization's monthly newspaper, The Southern Patriot, which many icons of the movement credited with getting the word out.

Anne Braden's relationship with her family was strained, Pickering said.

"Her parents loved their grandchildren but they had real difficulties with her politics for a long time, Pickering said.

Still Anne Braden "was a strongly religious woman in the Episcopal church," she said. "She took to heart the social gospel, that all people are equal. Many activists of that period have that background.

"She believed that being involved in the struggle for a better world is really what makes you divine," Pickering said. "She felt she was part of a long chain of hundreds of years of humans making a better world, and that gave her strength."

I interviewed Braden briefly in 2000 when she was a member of a panel in Frankfort discussing the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Then 75, Braden said it was "disconcerting" that she was being hailed as a hero after years of being characterized as a pariah. But, she said, the three years of tumult because of the Wade case were "probably the best thing that happened to me. It gave me opportunity to meet the cream of the crop, people who were part of the resistance movement."

When Anne and Carl Braden passed through Atlanta, they would stop at Martin and Coretta King's house, Pickering said. At one point during a discussion there, Pickering said Anne called out to Coretta, "Get out of the kitchen and come in here and sit down with us."

"She was a strategist," Pickering said. "She would sit in the background and smoke a cigarette and drink bourbon. She felt strongly that African-Americans should lead" the movement.

"As a white person," Pickering said, "I learned a lot from Anne and came to understand that for me and other whites how fundamental racial justice is to any justice in this country."

Anne Braden died in Louisville at age 81 in 2006.