[Marxism] Anne Braden biography
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Fri Apr 21 08:19:50 MDT 2006
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-SAWH at h-net.msu.edu (April, 2006)
Catherine Fosl. _Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for
Racial Justice in the Cold War South_. New York and London: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2002. ix + 418 pp. Illustrations, chronology, notes,
bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-3122-9487-5.
Reviewed for H-SAWH by Pamela Tyler, Department of
History, North Carolina State University.
Anne Braden: Dedicated Civil Rights Activist and Feminist
We live in a country in which our government can demand that libraries
reveal both the titles of books that are circulated and the identities of
their readers. Since September 11, 2001, issues of civil liberties have
assumed new urgency; our present struggle to combat a mortal enemy without
surrendering our essential freedoms gives new meaning to past campaigns of
In the icy years of the Cold War, reading, thinking, or socializing "Red"
inevitably branded a person as un-American and frequently led to
investigations, indictments, and convictions. Fifty years ago, Anne Braden,
a privileged white southern woman, born in 1924, learned with a vengeance
just how fragile freedom of thought, expression, and association could be.
_Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in
the Cold War South_, by Catherine Fosl, is much more than a biography; it
is a careful examination of the chilling effects of charges of
un-Americanism on the civil rights movement. Most southern historians know
the arc of Anne Braden's story, but it is less well known than it deserves
to be. In May 1954, only a week before the Supreme Court ruled in _Brown v.
Board of Education_, Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as fronts in a
real estate transaction in Louisville, Kentucky, purchasing a home in a
white subdivision, then reselling it to an African-American couple who
would have been unable to buy it themselves. The Bradens' reputation as
genuine Old Left liberals had led the couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, to
approach them; Anne Braden noted later that it would have been unthinkable
The Bradens' action caused an uproar in Louisville. In late June, a
dynamiting tore the Wades' house apart; fortunately, no one was injured.
Protests from the Wades and their allies led the district attorney to act,
but, amazingly, his action was to indict Carl and Anne Braden, and others,
under a 1920 sedition act. He charged them with conspiring to damage
property in order to achieve a political end--Communism. The prosecution
probed Carl and Anne's reading material, Communist Party friends, and
organizational links, revealing that the Bradens' beliefs were under
investigation; their true "crime" was subverting the racial hierarchy.
On the strength of questionable but explosive testimony from a paid
informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Carl Braden was found
guilty and sentenced to fifteen years. Charges against Anne were dropped,
reflecting the potency of white female gentility in the South. While Carl
endured solitary confinement in prison, Anne took to the road to publicize
this outrage against civil liberties. Fosl details Anne's growing network,
emphasizing that her bedrock of support lay with the southern wing of the
Old Left--Myles Horton, Virginia Durr, Clark Foreman, Jim Dombrowski, and
Aubrey Williams. In 1956, the Kentucky Supreme Court invalidated the
sedition law and overturned Carl's conviction, but the scarring experience
had radicalized both Bradens. Thereafter, they dedicated themselves with
intense single-mindedness to educating southerners about the importance of
civil liberties, aiming to create conditions in which the near-fascist
South would learn to tolerate dissent.
The power of anti-Communism, however, resulted in the demonization of the
Bradens. Even the civil rights movement feared to associate too closely
with them and barred them from meaningful leadership roles after they were
branded as "Red." Being held at arm's length by the civil rights community
was hurtful, but other slights bruised even more deeply. Anne, a native
Kentuckian with roots going back to colonial days, became an outcast in
Louisville; she sought community with what she called "the other America"
and found a spiritual home among those who believed in the class struggle,
sought to end racial inequities, and promoted peace and justice everywhere.
Her parents inflicted the deepest pain of all, as they criticized her
choices and questioned her parenting skills, never failing to assail her
chosen path for the price it exacted from her young children. Because of
her commitment to justice, Anne fought a continuing emotional war with her
mother and father.
After their _cause celebre_, Anne and Carl worked as field secretaries for
the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), attempting to identify and
motivate whites dissatisfied with the racial status quo. Anne edited the
_Southern Patriot_ for the SCEF and boosted the publication's circulation
threefold. She also encouraged the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee. In the Sixties and after, Anne Braden became a role model for
young white women in the movement. Unlike many women of the Old Left, in
addition to backing racial and social justice, Braden had lived her life as
Fosl is skillful at examining the role of gender in Anne's life. She probes
the impact of strong female role models during Anne's college years and
notes the unconventional contours of the Bradens' marriage. Because her
subject is still living, Fosl elected to avoid a real discussion of the
toll Anne's choices took on her two surviving children, accepting without
comment Anne's perhaps self-serving explanations for sending them away
during their childhood to stay for extended periods with their then-elderly
Fosl sprinkles excerpts from her interviews with Anne Braden throughout the
text, always highlighting Braden's words in italics. This device is useful
as it allows the reader glimpses into Anne's thoughts and experiences.
Nowhere, however, does Braden reveal the answer to the question that has
dogged her ever since 1954: are you, or were you, a Communist? Fosl chose
not to force the issue, arguing that to focus on the answer, whether
affirmative or negative, would trivialize Anne Braden's entire career.
Whether before grand juries or the press, Anne has always refused to answer
this question, arguing that it was not a valid one. "I surely wouldn't want
... to establish a principle that it's all right for un-Americans [i.e.,
members of the House Un-American Activities Committee] to investigate
Communists if they'll leave the non-Communists alone. I think we'd all feel
guilty as hell if that happened," she commented (p. 236).
Anne Braden has worked with single-minded dedication for her goals for
nearly seven decades, even as ugly Cold War politics forced her to struggle
for legitimacy. Though a pariah in her homeland for years, she never exiled
herself from the South, and though her activism carried significant
personal costs, she has never wavered. "Subversive southerner" must be a
label that Braden wears proudly, with pride in both the adjective and the
noun. Catherine Fosl's fine book is solidly grounded in an understanding of
the Cold War, the Old Left, the New Left, the civil rights movement, and
southern history. _Subversive Southerner_ is above all a feminist
biography. Anne Braden's compelling story has found a worthy interpreter.
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