A Traitor to Her Race

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PHOTO FROM “ANNE BRADEN: SOUTHERN PATRIOT” A FILM BY ANNE LEWIS AND MIMI PICKERING
Princeton Professor Cornel West and Anne Braden.

Her white attackers called Anne Braden a race traitor. A middle-class white woman from Alabama, Braden rejected her racial privilege in the Jim Crow South and devoted her life to fighting racism. Social justice historians and longtime Southern organizers know about Braden, an icon within the civil rights movement and a self-described socialist who fought on when legal segregation ended, plowing the fields at the intersection of racial and economic oppression.

But few Americans know her name, though she chronicled and was close to some of the most important figures in the civil rights movement—from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Ella Baker to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth—and was instrumental in social justice movements until her death in 2006.

In Anne Braden: Southern Patriot (view the trailer), documentary filmmakers Anne Lewis and Mimi Pickering give Braden the recognition she deserves, and by extension, an overlooked chapter in the nation’s progressive political history. “I think the reason she becomes less well known is that her ideas are radical, and I don’t know how much people want to read the ideas of a radical woman,” said Lewis, who met Braden in the 1980s when the veteran activist was running Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in Kentucky.

The documentary is a departure from the celebratory images of how far we’ve come in addressing Myrdal’s “American Dilemma.” Yet it shows that after the mass movements for social change ebbed in the ’70s, organizers continued out of the spotlight to attempt to create a just society—whether in the strip mines of Kentucky or the textile mills of North Carolina. These are the little-told stories.

“I think it’s an important film for us now,“ said Lewis. “It’s not a little old lady talking about the glories of the civil-rights movement. … It’s going to make people feel uncomfortable.”

And it does, because Braden did.

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In a penetrating moment in the documentary, an African-American activist tells the filmmakers that Braden “redeemed” his view of white people. The film’s edge comes from moments like this and Braden’s unflinching position that whites must own and call out white supremacy. “It’s that assumption that’s so embedded in you that you don’t realize it’s there … [the idea] that your crowd is supposed to be running things,” she says in the film, referring to her upbringing.

Her racial politics were informed by her own self-reflection and the sweeping black freedom movement, which sparked discussions about white privilege and whether a political agenda can be progressive without acknowledging white supremacy. Braden knew where she stood.

The issues may seem anachronistic in the days of the 99 percent and Million Hoodie marches, but they aren’t, said Lewis. “If you look at the justice movement, the movement against police brutality, it’s largely people of color,” she said. “And if you look at the peace movement, it’s almost completely white. Those fault lines are very interesting, and [Anne] exposes them.”

Fleeing from the racism of the Deep South, Braden moved from Alabama to Louisville, Ky., in the late 1940s, where she met her husband Carl. The couple worked for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a leading proponent of integration and civil rights, writing and editing its crusading newspaper The Southern Patriot. The Patriot unapologetically reported on the discord of a transformative time as SCEF withstood attacks alleging that it was a “communist front group.” Leftists, including communists, had long supported civil rights. The attempt to equate integrationists with communists was designed to defeat the civil rights movement.

Before they joined SCEF, the Bradens had worked in labor and integrationist circles. In 1954, they purchased a house for a black family in suburban Louisville. The house was later firebombed, and the family barely escaped injury. The Bradens and other white civil-rights supporters were tried for sedition, and later accused of bombing the house themselves to foment unrest. Carl Braden served prison time before the charges were dropped on a technicality: Sedition is a federal offense, not a state crime. To many whites in Louisville, as Braden says in the film, “We were traitors to the race.”

Braden died before the documentary was completed. Using their interviews with her and material from other sources, the filmmakers succeed in intermingling her personal story with the stormy times—from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which attempted to undermine civil rights through fear and restricting speech, the campaigns to organize white workers in Pikesville, Ky., and the backlash against King when he publicly opposed the Vietnam War.

Braden witnessed it all. She is a powerful presence on camera talking about herself and history. Her first inkling that segregation was wrong was when she noticed that the hand- me-down dresses her family gave to the housekeeper’s daughter were always too small for the girl. She balks at how King’s birthday is celebrated because she doesn’t recognize the man she knew. “The powers that be have totally distorted what that man was,” she says. “ He wasn’t a dreamer, he was a revolutionary.”

As the documentary draws to a close, lessons from her life come into sharp focus, and the issue of white supremacy returns more directly than before. “I go to these meetings and people talk about how we’ve got to build better [racial] relations and that sort of thing,” she says, “And I’m always getting up and saying ‘Well, first we have to deal with the issue of white supremacy.’ And it’s like you threw a snake on the table.”

But Anne Braden: Southern Patriot isn’t a forum for white guilt—Braden believed that guilt never caused anyone to act—rather the documentary is a call for white action. In the last scene of the film, she reads these words, written by a black woman, but true for everyone who believes in justice: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it’s won.”

The Austin Film Society will screen Anne Braden: Southern Patriot on Wednesday, July 18, at 7 p.m. at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd. A Q&A with director Anne Lewis will follow the screening. Tickets will be available online at www.austinfilm.org or at Alamo on night of screening.

  • Jeffrey Heavin

    Nigger-lover…