Anne Braden: Southern Activist
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 13-14
FOR OVER FORTY-FIVE YEARS, almost as long as the Southern Regional Council has existed, Anne Braden has stood for a South that embodies the very best democratic ideals and traditions. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, and reared in the Deep South, Anne had every opportunity as she was growing up in the 1930s to acclimate herself to the worst traditions of the South—the worst habits of a white segregated society. But by the gifts of family and circumstances, and perhaps just that magic that some call fate and others call God’s will, she came to understand in time and experience that the South of segregation was wrong in the 1940s, and, by God, the South of segregation need not be forever. While in 1992 that conclusion seems commonplace, for those who were coming of age in the 1930s and ’40s, it was a leap of imagination which even the founders of the Southern Regional Council could not grasp in its beginning.
Anne began in newspaper work in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Kentucky. She soon realized, however, that what she was covering, what she was seeing, needed to be changed more than reported. And so, she began to use her talents as a journalist and her self-made talents as an organizer to work with labor unions and burgeoning groups that later would call themselves civil rights groups. With her husband Carl, she began to change and challenge and did not stop.
In 1957, the Bradens began to work with the Southern Conference Education Fund, (SCEF). And if I fumble a bit on the name, it’s only because, if there’s been one time, there’s been a thousand times that people have introduced me from the Southern Regional Conference. I have often thought of it as something of a nice compliment, that somehow the Southern Regional Council, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare and the Southern Conference Education Fund could be seen as one in the full history of our world.
Anne worked through the ’50s and the ’60s with SCEF. Into the ’70s she helped to organize the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC) as a multi-racial, multi-issue network. She continued in the ’80s and she continues in the ’90s. If we had time and opportunity, we could meet people from the bayous of Louisiana to the mountain country of Kentucky who would give their own personal stories of what Anne has meant and done in their lives.
Tonight we honor Anne not merely for the consequences of these good deeds but also for the example that she sets as a lifelong Southerner of goodwill. In the 1950s, Anne and her husband Carl stood up against the tyranny of the witch hunt which Joe McCarthy and the U.S. Committee on Un-American Activities led and which Southern segregationist governors and members of Congress used to terrorize people who simply believed in integration. More than virtually all other Southerners—at times more than the leaders of the Southern Regional Council—Anne understood the devastation that would befall the South, and did, when people replied to the accusation, “Communist” with the reply, “Not me!” She knew that that reply only gave strength to the corrupted accusations and only divided Southerners of goodwill into ineffectiveness. It is a testament to her mettle not only that she gave us that example, but that she forgave us for having not understood it early enough.
Another of Anne’s exquisite examples comes from her insight and her faith in what I would call the beloved community. Before many others, Anne saw the connections between various social movements that came in time and different eras, various movements of different people with different urges. She saw the labor movement and the civil rights movement had very important connections—that they were in many ways one. She was one of the first white Southerners to understand the important connections between the civil rights movement the anti-war movement (Vietnam) and the poor peoples movement. She understood this lineage and these connections. I remember in 1969, after perhaps the most deadly year of our recent political history, Anne Braden went to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to speak to a group of black and white students and community folks about how their work
in civil rights and their work on anti-war activities were in fact one and the same. She made those connections far better than any of us ever did, and she was able to forge them in many other places with a sense of common purpose which enlivened, deepened and enabled the local work for social and political change.
In recent years, she’s continued to bind together what is a rainbow of interests even before the Rainbow Coalition, on whose board she sits, was ever imagined. Civil rights, peace, labor, environment—these are but one cause, not many, for Anne Braden and for this insight we all are indebted.
The third significant lesson that Anne has given in her lifetime is tenacity, her endurance in the cause of a multiracial, just society. In an era when two years seem to be an awfully long time and four is just more than one can imagine ahead, Anne has given decades. She is devoted, daily, weekly, monthly in a fight she believes is as dear as her soul. I doubt there are many people who have ridden more miles, who have gone to as many small community group meetings and who continue to believe that each and every time it was important than Anne Braden. She has endured.
Finally, Anne Braden has had an important part, now and in the past in shaping the conscience of the South. This is not a fuzzy, feel-good notion with Anne. While she is warm and friendly, no one is more free of useless sentimentality than Anne Braden.
Bless her heart, she suffers fools poorly. She speaks her mind and she’s always done so on behalf of what she sees as a just and right society. She always has been impatient with those who find practical problems with moving forward. Always impatient, yet always enduring, she has continued to help define the struggle to empower all citizens to have a voice and a stake in our peculiar institution of democracy.
These are the examples of a lifetime that Anne Braden has brought to the South and this nation. History, I fear, will not do her justice since Anne’s contributions represent characteristics that are not only too rare but too rarely appreciated.
Tonight we are trying to do what I fear historians will not, to recognize the importance of these characteristics and the contributions they’ve enabled. Because she has given us a noble model of the qualities that are essential for anyone who works for a just and peaceful world, we have decided to give Anne Braden our highest honor and our deepest appreciation.
Steve Suitts, executive director of the SRC, made these remarks in presenting a Life Fellows Award to Anne Braden.