Jumping on Racism with Both Feet
Reviewed by Ellen G. Spears
Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 19-20
“Racism is such a powerful force in this country, you have to always be jumping on it with both feet just to be able to hold it down, to hold it in check.”1
– State Senator Hank Sanders,
Catherine Fosl, Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Anne Braden is one of a few white Southerners who have been jumping on racism with both feet for more than five decades. Leaving a privileged childhood in pre-civil rights Louisville, Kentucky and Anniston, Alabama, she became a journalist, activist, civil rights leader, and mentor to today’s social justice movements. In Subversive Southerner, Catherine Fosl, who teaches women’s studies and humanities at the University of Louisville, has given us an important gift, tracing the formative influences on Anne Braden and interpreting her brave actions against brutal Cold War era politics in the South.
Fosl traces key elements of Braden’s unlikely transformation into one of the South’s most enduring civil rights activists-beginning with a mother who recognized and encouraged her daughter’s intellect and talents; strong, progressive women professors at women’s colleges who nurtured Braden’s leadership skills; and an early career as a journalist. Through reporting jobs, first at the Anniston Star and then, at the Birmingham News, Braden confronted the grim underside of racism and poverty faced by Alabama’s laboring and black citizens.
Her marriage to radical activist and mentor Carl Braden, fellow journalist at the Louisville Times, brought her into a world of people who shared a sharp critique of U.S. society. Significant organizational influences included the Civil Rights Congress and Southern Conference on Human Welfare, later the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), which Anne and Carl Braden staffed from 1957 to 1974. Anne began editing SCEF’s newspaper, The Southern Patriot, in 1957.
Fosl very effectively reprises ground Braden herself covered in her 1958 book, The Wall Between, which was reprinted with a new epilogue by the author by the University of Tennessee Press in 1999. Both books recount the maelstrom that followed the Bradens’ simple bold act of purchasing a home in a white Louisville suburb on behalf of an African-American couple, Charlotte and Andrew Wade, in May 1954, just two days before the Supreme Court’s action overturning school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. The Wades held out courageously against shots fired into their Jefferson County home and a cross burning on their lawn. For the act of aiding the Wades, the Bradens, first Carl and then Anne, and five other whites, were charged with sedition and Carl served eight months of a fifteen-year sentence.
Biographies succeed best when they illuminate the times lived. Seeking out details from numerous oral and archival sources, Fosl does far more that recount the story of the Bradens and the Wades and the sedition trials that followed. Her essential insight: red-bailing was wielded as a vicious wedge to split civil rights, labor, and peace movements from each other and from their natural allies in the left-wing of the labor movement. For a time, despite their consistent work against white supremacy, Fosl points out, the Bradens had to fight their way into the Civil Rights Movement as well.
Out of their experience with the Wade case, and the repression that followed, Braden developed a basic strategy: you use each attack as a platform to reach more people with what you were trying to say. Anne and Carl traveled the South organizing for SCEF, and became sensitive observers of the interworkings of power and race.
The original working title for the manuscript, “No white person in the South can be neutral,” reveals the core principle that has guided Braden’s life and work: the centrality of race in solving the sharp contradictions in American society. Together, the Bradens put racial justice at the center of “a radical interracialism, rooted in the Old Left, with race as the fulcrum toward a broader economic and social justice.” Braden’s refusal to live in complicity with the privileges of race and class, her insis-
tence, by word and example, to whites especially, on the necessity of anti-racist action, has touched the lives of younger activists.
On the trail of this extraordinary woman, Fosl has utilized a gender lens. Describing the Bradens’ balancing of shared speaking tours, caring for children, and the tensions of dealing with sharp political differences with parents, Fosl covers concerns that often went unaddressed in the movement and that have often been overlooked in many civil rights biographies.
Fosl encountered a difficult biographical task. Braden was often too busy making history–working for rights of political prisoners, organizing against an upsurge of klan and police violence, and building new coalitions around progressive electoral strategies and for environmental justice-to devote much time to collaborating on the book. Faced with a somewhat unavailable, very much alive “subject” who must live with the consequences of the portrayal, also an accomplished journalist who had already written about some of the key events in question, Fosl utilized oral history in a unique form of collaboration, incorporating Anne’s words directly into the narrative.
With this book, Fosl has added a valuable contribution to other recent biographies of white women civil rights activists that include Kathryn Nasstrom’s Everybody’s Grandmother and Nobody’s Fool (2000), about the Georgia anti-poverty activist Frances Freeborn Pauley, and the collection by Connie Curry and others, Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Civil Rights Movement (2000).
I wanted far more about the Anne Braden that I have come to know in recent decades, a leader on the National Rainbow Coalition board, listened to by Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, as co-chair, with Rev. Ben Chavis and later with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, of the Southern Organizing Committee for Social and Economic Justice (SOC), as ally with Rev. C.T. Vivian in anti-klan efforts, a stalwart in the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, and innumerable south-wide justice campaigns.
More scholarly work is needed that addresses the debates in the 1970s, 80s and 90s as skillfully as Fosl has handled Braden’s life during peak Cold War years. Such work might illuminate how the vestiges of that era still circumscribe today’s social justice movement, yielding understanding of Braden’s stance in declining to specify her relationships on the left. Her position, refusing to sanitize or demonize herself or others by spelling out associations with the Communist Party, still provokes questions at book-signings and among historians. Former SRC Executive Director Steve Suitts addressed that controversy when he presented to Braden the Southern Regional Council’s highest award in 1992. “More than virtually all other Southerners–at times more than the leaders of the Southern Regional Council–,” said Suitts, “Anne understood the devastation that would befall the South, and did, when people replied to the accusation, “Communist,” with the reply, ‘Not me!” That response, said Suitts, “divided Southerners of goodwill into ineffectiveness” (Southern Changes, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1993).
In these days of Patriot Acts, the legacy of Cold War era McCarthyism isn’t as far past as we might like to think. The code word terrorist has largely replaced communist as the demonizing noun, but present challenges to individual privacy, freedoms of expression and of association recall the McCarthy era. Progressives and liberals today are often divided into ineffectiveness by an approach to differences that prevents the overarching alliance necessary to combat the anti-democratic, racially retrogressive policies of the Bush II era.
In today’s climate, at 79, Braden continues to seek effective coalitions, working into the night at her office at the Braden Center in Louisville longer and with more determination than many activists half her age. “History, I fear, will not do her justice since Anne’s contributions represent characteristics that are not only too rare but too rarely appreciated,” Suitts also noted in that 1992 speech. Fosl’s insightful book honors Braden’s too rare contributions. Perhaps this book will encourage more people, young and old, to examine their choices and live as she has done, jumping on racism with both feet.
Ellen G. Spears, former associate director of the Southern Regional Council, is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University and a contributing editor to Southern Changes.
1. In “Geography and Justice in the Black Belt” by Allen Tullos in Wilson, Charles Reagan, ed. The New Regionalism. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998, p. 143.