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Anne Braden, 81; Longtime Social Activist Fought for Racial Tolerance in the South

Obituaries

March 09, 2006|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Anne Braden, a longtime social activist who was indicted on charges of sedition after helping a black couple integrate a 1950s white neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., died Monday. She was 81.

Braden had been diagnosed with pneumonia and dehydration when she was admitted Saturday to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, said her biographer, Catherine Fosl.

The cause of death was not announced.

"It was a big, big life that she lived, and she was a teeny little woman who was so soft-spoken you could hardly hear her," Fosl said.

As newspaper reporters in the 1940s and '50s, Braden and her husband, Carl, joined the struggle for social change in the South.

The white couple found themselves in the headlines in 1954 when they agreed to buy a house and transfer the title to a black World War II veteran, Andrew Wade, and his wife, Charlotte. The Wades had tried unsuccessfully to purchase a home in the suburbs.

After the Wades moved into the neighborhood, the house immediately became a target; rocks were thrown through windows, a cross was burned on a neighbor's frontyard, shots were fired and the house was damaged in a dynamite blast.

During a grand jury investigation of the bombing, the Bradens were questioned about their political affiliations and were ultimately indicted for sedition, accused of disloyalty to the state of Kentucky.

Carl was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was jailed for seven months before the conviction was overturned; Anne's case never went to trial.

Anne wrote about the bombing and the subsequent legal action in her 1958 book "The Wall Between," which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Bradens viewed their experience in Kentucky as nothing less than a threat to their civil liberties.

"What came together here was a combination of the anti-Red and the anti-black hysteria, and when you put that together it was overwhelming," she told author Griffin Fariello for his 1995 collection of oral histories, "Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition."

Local authorities raided the Bradens' home and confiscated much of the couple's book collection and introduced it as evidence at the 1954 trial.

"We had a lot of Marxist books and a lot of other books too," Braden told Fariello.

"They didn't really know the difference. They took anything with a Russian name, all my Tolstoy books, and Turgenev and Dostoevsky. But we had Marx and Lenin too. They had all these books in the courtroom, it was a trial of books in a way. It was a very hysterical situation. Very little about the Wade house, except that this was part of a plot to stir up trouble between the races and take all the land away from the white people," Braden said.

The Bradens continued their involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement, organizing the Southern Conference Educational Fund and mobilizing white support with their reporting from the South.

They became close to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King agreed to Anne's request in 1961 to sign a petition requesting clemency for Carl, who was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958.

Members of the Progressive Party in the 1950s, the Bradens never openly aligned themselves with the Communist Party, but neither did they disassociate themselves from it.

"When the day comes that a person can be a member of the Communist Party and say so and continue to work and function in this society, I'll answer that question, but until that day comes I will not," Anne said in 1961.

Fosl, a professor of communications and women's and gender studies at the University of Louisville, asked Anne Braden late in her life about her reluctance to address the issue and she responded:

"No matter how you answer it, you're conceding that [Communist Party membership is] the measuring stick and there's this group of people who are beyond the pale."

The Bradens continued to demonstrate for social change, joining the fight for the desegregation of schools in the South, protesting the Vietnam War and advocating equal rights for women.

They lent their support to Angela Davis, a Communist Party member and UCLA professor who was fired for her political views.

Anne continued her activism after Carl died of a heart attack in 1975.

She was an early supporter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and stood as a delegate for him at the 1998 Democratic National Convention.

She was awarded the American Civil Liberties Union's first Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty in 1990.

Although increasingly frail the last few years, she traveled to Washington in the fall of 2005 for a rally against the war in Iraq.

"She really lived for justice," Fosl, the author of "Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South," told The Times this week. "Every waking moment was devoted to these causes."

Anne Gambrell McCarty was born on July 28, 1924, in Louisville but spent most of her youth in Alabama.

After graduating from Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va., she went to work as a reporter in Alabama in the 1940s before moving to the Louisville Times, where she met her husband, who was a reporter there.

She is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son, James, both of Austin, Texas.

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