I knew Anne Braden from the mid 1970’s until her death in March 2006. Of course, I knew of her before then. She was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). I was aware she was mentioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written in April, 1963. I had heard how she and her husband Carl Braden were from Louisville, Ky. and both had been charged with sedition by the State of Kentucky for buying a house in a segregated part of Louisville and then selling it to a Black couple. The Bradens were convicted, and Carl served time. One of the things I never forgot about Anne is how throughout her life she stood by Carl. She would say “Carl and I were a team. I just happened to have lived a much longer life. But we were a team. I became better known. Had Carl lived as long as me, we would have both been well known.”
I first met Anne at S.O.C. meetings. “SOC” was how everyone referred to the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice which Anne helped found in the 1970’s, along with Rev. C.T. Vivian and other organizers who had been leaders in the CRM. SOC’s purpose was to stress organizing as a fundamental principle of social change. Its importance to the work must be kept front and center, especially in the minds of activists. The founders of SOC urged activists not to succumb to quick programmatic temptations as the obvious “next steps” to the incredible victories that organizing had brought about in the aftermath of Brown v. Board in 1954. They knew it was mass-based organizing that had made the CRM happen and that it was such organizing that would continue to be the necessary foundation for any future victories. They wanted to train organizers who could move about the South and keep the Movement going. Anne always had a strong cadre of local organizers who worked with her in different towns and cities across the South. She did not want to be seen as what would become known as a public intellectual. Whether it was Mattie Jones in Louisville or Judy Hand and Scott Douglas in Birmingham, she knew how important networking was in her organizing. Jim Dunn would say “We must build a net that works”.
I was not a seasoned organizer in the mid 1970’s. I was just beginning my work at St. Mark’s Community Center in New Orleans, where I was hired as part of a recreation program serving neighborhood youth from “Treme,” one of the oldest African American communities in the United States. It was in Treme that I first heard of a group of neighborhood residents who were forming an organization to address issues of housing, jobs, and constant police harassment. I knew I wanted to be a part of that effort.
Ron Chisom, Joyce Lawes, Jim Hayes and the Herbert family were the lead organizers behind the development of the Treme Community Improvement Association (TCIA). They focused on developing leadership and enhancing Treme residents and their institutionally-based supporters like myself with a sense of the community’s power. Part of their long term strategy was to expose their members to other organizing efforts not only in New Orleans but around the South. I began to travel to Birmingham to SOC meetings. It was like going to school. It was definitely an education. SOC was a classroom, and the teachers were legendary. People would come from all over to SOC meetings. Dr. Jim Dunn from Yellow Springs, Ohio came to SOC meetings. So did C.T. Vivian from Atlanta SCLC , Anne Romaine, an organizer working among coal miners in Appalachia, Lynn Wells with the National Anti- Klan Network, and such luminaries as Hosea Williams, Modjeska Simpkins, and Rev. Fred Taylor from Atlanta. But the prime mover behind SOC’s influence was the example and charisma of Anne Braden. Because it was Anne who founded SOC, others wanted to be a part of it. Because Anne believed, you believed. Or you believed in Anne.
I asked Ron Chisom once what was it about Anne Braden that stood out in his mind. He said “because she never threw anybody away.” “Anne worked with everybody.” “I try to follow that principle in my own work.”
Anne struggled with the current emphasis on Affinity Groups. It was a new notion to her. She resisted being slotted into the white group. “You mean after spending my whole life organizing white and black people to learn how to come together, I now have to meet with just white people?” We assured her that is not what was meant, but people of color, especially Black people, were saying that they needed spaces where whites were not present to discuss dynamics not meant for white people to hear. And they went on to say “and whites need to do the same.” Thus was born European Dissent” in 1986. The idea was when we did come back together, we would be stronger. Maybe Anne was right. Today, Affinity Groups are in danger of becoming an end in themselves. This at the expense of movement building and community based organizing.
I remember an evening in the early 2000’s after an Undoing Racism workshop in New Orleans at Margery Freeman in our home in New Orleans, with Anne and Rev. C.T. Vivian present. Others were also there from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond organizing in New Orleans. We began to tell stories, one of which, was how The Institute was formed at C.T.’s home in Atlanta with Anne present. As the night wore on, Anne and C.T. began to reminisce about their history together, working with Dr. King and other heroes of the CRM. Alcohol flowed freely amongst us, and inhibitions loosened. At some point, I chose to just squeeze down into a corner and listen. What a rare and, in retrospect, cherished evening. Thinking of my upbringing in segregated portions of McComb, Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas in the 1950’s and 60’s, I thought: “what a blessing to have such a twosome in our house.” Even as the weather outside worsened and grew more and more inclement to the point the New Orleans airport was shut down, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. C.T. and Anne had to sleep at our place overnight. One on the couch and another on a pallet on the floor.
Another memory comes to mind with Anne. She called one evening in what felt to me like the middle of the night. It was probably close to midnight. She was excited. “Let’s make a movie,” she proclaimed. “Let’s do a remake of ‘Mississippi Burning’ but tell the truth. The one out now makes the FBI seem like heroes.” She went on for a while before we admitted it was probably not going to happen.
Anne had certain principles of organizing that are important still today to understand and live by. She called them her 5 Essentials. (1) You must understand racism. It is not just another issue nor just one among many “isms”. Racism destroys democracy, and this is a race constructed nation. (2) Change comes as oppressed peoples organize for change. You can’t legislate racism away. You can’t educate it away. (3) When African American communities organize, the nation trembles. (4) No one group can do it alone, but a coalition of groups working together in order to build a movement is necessary. (5) We must regain the audacity of the ‘60s and dream the dream.
If there is an Organizers Hall of Fame, Anne Braden belongs in it. If there are those whose names we must not forget, hers is one of them. Find her story and learn more about this remarkable woman, and then let us walk in the path that she forged for us.