According to Anne Braden, her path was always clear: “An older, African American leader that I respected highly told me I had to make a choice: be a part of the world of the lynchers or join the Other America—of people from the very beginning of this country who opposed injustice, and especially opposed racism and slavery. [He told me] I could be a part of that—that it existed today and offered me a home to live in.
“I felt like, well, that’s what I wanna be a part of. And so it was a very real concept to me all my life and still is. It is the present incarnation of the movement for social change in my time, but it’s also the connection with a past and a future. [It’s] like you’re part of a long chain of struggle that was here long before you were here, and it’s gonna be here long after you’re gone. And that gives life a meaning.”
To read the full Bio from “Americans Who Tell the Truth” go to: https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/anne-braden
To the hatred they raised all the youngsters on
Once upon a time in this country, long ago
She knew there was something wrong
Because the song said “yellow, red, black, and white
Every one precious in the path of Christ”
But what about the daughter
Of the woman cleaning their house?
Wasn’t she a child they were singin’ about?
Why didn’t her white mother invite them in?
When did it become a room for no blacks to step in?
How did she already know not to ask the question?
Left lasting impressions
At a lesson, comfort’s gone
She never thought things would ever change
But she always knew there was something wrong
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
Mississippi bound to help
Stop the legalized lynching of Mr. Willy McGee
But they couldn’t stop it
So they thought that they’d talk to the governor about what’d happened
And say, “We’re tired of being used as an excuse to kill black men”
But the cops wouldn’t let ’em past
And these women, they struck ’em as uppity
So they hauled ’em all off to jail
And they called in protective custody
She heard her jailers
Grumblin’ about “outsiders”
When she called ’em out
And said she was from the south, they shouted,
“Why is a nice, Southern lady makin’ trouble
For the governor?”
She said, “I guess I’m not your type of lady
And I guess I’m not your type of Southerner
But before you call me traitor,
Well it’s plain as just to say
I was a child in Mississippi
But I’m ashamed of it today”
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
([spoken] And, all of a sudden, I realized I was on the other side)
All of your neighbors, they’re family-friends
How would you cope facing the fact
The flesh on their hands was tainted with sin?
She faced this every day
People she saw on a regular basis
People she loved, in several cases
People she knew were incredibly racist
Never stopped callin’ their names
And she never stopped being a Southern woman
And she never stopped fighting for change
And she saw that her struggle was
in the tradition of ancestors never aware of her
It continues today:
The soul of a Southerner
born of the other America
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
She always knew there was somethin’ wrong
A Letter to White Southern Women from Anne Braden
(Below is a slightly edited version. To read the full letter written in 1972 go to the article: http://www.newsreel.org/guides/Anne-Braden-A-Letter-to-White-Southern-Women.pdf )
I believe that no White woman reared in the South – or perhaps anywhere in this racist country – can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up White – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.
The awareness never comes easily – and perhaps it comes to each of us in a different way. Perhaps for my generation it was a bit easier – when the mythologies were acted out more obviously and more crudely than today.
For me, the awareness began 26 years ago in a courtroom in Birmingham, Alabama. I was 22, a young newspaper reporter, covering the courthouse. That day, a young Black man was being tried – not for rape, but something called “assault with intent to ravish.” A young White woman testified that he passed her on the opposite side of a country road and looked at her in an “insulting” way. He was sentenced to 20 years.
I was appalled by the case. Torn by what was happening to the Black man. But torn, too, as I watched the White woman. She appeared to be very poor, but she had obviously dressed in her best – and for that day she was queen in the courtroom. The judge, the prosecutor, her father who told of her fright when she came in from that walk – all rallied round to defend her honor.
Later that day, I told the prosecutor I thought the conviction and sentence had been terribly unfair. “Now don’t you worry your little head about things like that,” he said. “As long as I’m prosecutor in this county, we’re going to protect our women.”
He smiled at me in a confiding way – as if we were on the same side in some great battle – and began telling me about another case, new information, a “scoop” for my paper because we would report it before the competition paper.
I felt a smothering sensation – and left his office as soon as I could. It was not until much later that I was able to articulate my feelings that day. At the time, I wondered how that woman could do this cruel thing to the Black man – sending him to prison for 20 years for absolutely nothing. It was only later that I realized the horror of what she was doing to herself.
Tomorrow, after her day as a queen, she would go back to a life of poverty and boredom: waiting on her father, on her brothers, and someday on a husband – paying with a lifetime of drudgery for those magic moments when she could achieve the status of a wronged White woman.
It was even longer before I realized that my conflicts that day also arose from questions about myself – before I came to understand that my position and that of the woman on the witness stand were not very different after all.
I thought I was different. At 22, I had already had an image of myself as a “free” woman – today, the term would be “liberated.” I had grown up in Alabama, where the role of women in my world was clearly defined: make yourself as attractive as possible to men; hide the fact that you have a brain since men don’t like smart women; learn to make men feel important; be a belle of the ball; marry and have children and make a home.
I had rejected that and chosen a career, in which I was doing well. People at the newspaper said I was one of the best reporters they had ever had; I managed to get the news no one else could, and I knew how to write it.
Yet, sitting that day in the prosecutor’s office, I was just one more brainless woman. By my acquiescence, I was part of the conspiracy that said White women must be protected. Even my news-gathering ability was perhaps not real after all, but rather the result of the attitudes of White officials around the courthouse who saw me as one more woman to “protect.”
I could not articulate any of this at the time – but I knew something was wrong, and this and many similar instances finally made me flee Birmingham – feeling that if I got away from Alabama and the South, I could escape the forces that seemed to be smothering me.
It was after I took another newspaper job in Louisville, Kentucky – seeing it then as a way stop to the North and further development of a career – that I became involved in the organized civil rights movement. Then I began to analyze. I met people in the movement and talked with them. I began to read things I’d never heard of before.
And so, of course, I learned that I was not the first Southern White woman who had been torn by these conflicts. I learned about the White women who fought in the Abolitionist movement against slavery – and, in the process, began to achieve their own freedom.
I learned, too, a little history of the South – how rape had been made a capital crime only after the Civil War, after Reconstruction brought poor Whites and Blacks in the South together to create a better society. It was then that those who formerly ruled had to institute a new terror to come back to power. And how between 1890 until the 1930’s, thousands of Black men were lynched, many of them because of the cry of rape.
And how it was a group of White women in the South who first spoke out dearly against this – in the 1930’s. They organized the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and declared to the world that they were tired of being used as an excuse for the killing of Black men and they’d protect themselves, thank you. I identified with those women, although I had never met any of them – and sensed that herein lay the road to my own freedom.
By this time, lynching had declined in the South – partly because of the work of those women. But the lynchers had moved into the courthouses, where they still reside today. But by then there were fights around some of the most atrocious cases.
The Scottsboro Case in Alabama (about which I only knew vaguely as a child – although it was happening all around me) had awakened many people. In Virginia, Whites as well as Blacks were fighting for the lives of the Martinsville Seven.
A turning point in my life came when I became involved in the case of Willie McGee. McGee was a Black man sentenced to die for the rape of a White woman in Laurel, Mississippi. His accuser was another of the South’s tragic women.
Laurel is a town whose political and economic life was dominated then – as it is now – by the Masonite Corporation. Masonite workers at one time had a union that had the reputation of being the most militant in Mississippi.
McGee was arrested in November, 1945 – at the height of the post World War II strike wave that was sweeping the country. His case, which went on until 1951 and brought 1,500 cheering Whites to the courthouse lawn on the night he was finally executed, kept Laurel in turmoil for almost six years. It played an important part in maintaining the gulf between Black and White workers on which Masonite thrives.
The McGee case became the focal point of an international campaign. The fight did not save McGee’s life; he was executed on May 8, 1951. The state of Mississippi was determined to kill him, and at one point the governor said in a public statement that if the state did not kill McGee he would do it himself. But I never felt the campaign really failed. It clarified the issues as nothing else had, except perhaps the Scottsboro case, and the lives of many other Black men were saved because of it.
After that, for several years at least, public officials were more careful about making random arrests for rape.
One of the historic features of the campaign was a mobilization of White women throughout the country to say what those Southern women in the 30’s had said, what I was now feeling so strongly: “We are women, we are human beings, we will no longer be used as things, as tools of White supremacy.”
Several delegations of White women from across the country went to Mississippi at various times – to talk to the women there, to take their message to the heart of the monster. I went down from Kentucky where I was then living, with the last delegation – the weekend before the execution. Ours was a last-minute effort; our mission was to see the governor, to state the case for the nation’s White women.
We never got to see the governor. Jackson was tense that day – police mobilized on every corner to head off an expected demonstration of Blacks from the surrounding countryside. As we were preparing to cross the street to walk to the capitol building, we were arrested. Actually they did not call it arrest; they said we were in “protective custody.” So they put us in a jail cell. It struck me as symbolic of what the South’s protection of its White women really means.
I rode to the police station in a patrol car with two other members of our delegation on the back seat along with one burly cop – and two more cops on the front seat. One of those in front was making comments all the way: “You girls ought to go back where you came from; you don’t know anything about our problems in the South.”
I stood it as long as I could and then I said: “I think I know a good bit about the South. I grew up in Alabama – and before that I lived in Mississippi as a small child. As a matter of fact, here in Jackson. And I’m ashamed of the city of my childhood today.”
At that point the mood of the cop in the front seat changed from contempt to fury. He had thought we were all “yankees.” Traitors are worse. “And you’re here on this – why you…you are not fit to be called a Southern woman. You ought to be killed.”
He turned as if to hit me, and hesitated long enough for the cop on the back seat to say, “Wait a minute, Joe,” and for me to simply look at him and say, “No, I think I’m not your kind of Southern woman.” I guess I must have stared him down, because he turned around and contented himself with growling insults the rest of the way to the station.
What I had said to him, of course, was not exactly what I meant. One can always think later of what it would have been better to say in a tense moment. And this was before I had really analyzed my own feelings as a woman and what was happening to me in those years. Looking at it in retrospect, I think what I was really saying was: “No, I have had enough. From this time on, you and the society you represent will not define me. I will define myself.”
But then, in that moment, I only knew that I suddenly felt free – really free for the first time in my life, free that day I spent in the jail cell, the first time I’d been in jail. I think now that I knew instinctively even then that I had reached a turning point in my life – and in a sense, a point of no return.
No longer was I the helpless victim of a “protective” society as I had been that day in Birmingham in the prosecutor’s office. In a single moment of action, I had placed myself on the “other side” – the other side from that cop who at first wanted to protect me, and when I didn’t want to be protected, wanted to kill me…the other side from the prosecutor who took my brain and my humanity away from me by granting me favors as a young reporter because I was an attractive woman…the other side from the people in Mississippi who were determined to kill Willie McGee, who had made his accuser a heroine for a time, and used her for all of her life…the other side from the people I had grown up with, who had taught me so carefully where a woman’s place was…the other side from the rulers of the South who treated Black people like children and put White women on “pedestals” – and turned on both in fury when they asserted their humanity…I was on the other side from the death and decay that gripped the society I lived in.
For in an exploitive society, there are always two sides. And at some point, one must choose.
Perhaps because of my own experience, I have believed ever since that the choice comes not in areas of thought and theory – but in some moment of action. An action that puts us on the “other side”…
Perhaps the real difference now as compared with the time of the McGee case over 20 years ago is that then there were forces on the left in this country that were making this kind of struggle a focal point of their work and organizing. Willie McGee was not the only Black man sentenced to die for rape in that period – but his case was particularly atrocious and people who understood the issues organized around it, dramatized it – and thus illuminated for many people the depth of the racist myths that imprisoned us all.
Racism has not declined in this country since then; in many ways, it has embedded itself more deeply in our minds and institutions. There is an illusion to the contrary, because of the small gains won by the civil rights movement that crested in the South 10 years after the McGee case.
These gains were real – won by the blood and tears of many people, and the lives of some. But they were only a beginning, only a scratching of the surface. And suddenly a smug and self-satisfied White America turned away, said the battle was over – as the racists moved to recover the ground they had lost, to crush the Black movement wherever they could and to fix firmly in the hands of the powerful White few the ultimate control of our society.
Just how successful they have been is indicated by the current national retreat on the issue of school desegregation – a question many of us thought had been decided in 1954.
What the myths of racism do to us as White women may not come to everyone as dramatically as it did to me – in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Jackson, Mississippi. But it impinges on the lives of us all.
For example – recently, in Memphis, Tennessee, underpaid White women workers in a small factory were persuaded to vote against a union because the company told them a victory for the union would mean they would be associating on a basis of equality with Black men in the plant. This was an affront to their “Southern White
womanhood,” and to preserve that ancient myth they sacrificed the chance of better pay, food on their tables, and a more decent life for their children.
I am aware that my appeal to you to take up the fight…comes at a time when the women’s movement in this country is struggling to make our society recognize and deal with the crime of rape. My position is not at odds with this struggle; it is simply another dimension.
For the fact is that…most real rapes go unpunished – and often unreported – because of the contempt with which police treat the complaining woman. Police and the society generally extend “protection” only to women who are willing to be pawns in their game.
I don’t think all this will change until women – organized and strong and asserting their humanity – demand it.
We haven’t had that kind of strength – and don’t now – because of the deep chasm that divides White women from Black in our society, a chasm created by crimes committed in the name of White womanhood.
It may seem paradoxical – but in this racist society we who are White will overcome our oppression as women only when we reject once and for all the privileges conferred on us by our White skin. For the privileges are not real – they are a device through which we are kept under control.
We can make a beginning toward building a really strong women’s movement as we openly reject and fight racist myths that have kept us divided. We can begin by joining with our Black sisters – and go on…from there to free others, and ourselves.
There is an epilogue to my experience in the Willie McGee case. Several months after his execution, I met his widow, Rosalie McGee, who had worked day and night for six years trying to save him, traveling the length and breadth of the land. After he was electrocuted, she continued in the fight for freedom for other Blacks for a number of years.
She has since died, but for a time it was my privilege to work with her in some of these efforts. We did not know each other well, we lived in different parts of the country, we saw each other only a few times – I doubt that I ever particularly stood out in her mind, any more than the many other women White and Black with whom she was working.
But I felt a deep kinship with her – and with the other women I met during that campaign for her husband’s life. For one of the things that came home to me in that period was how the myth of White womanhood had separated us from our Black sisters. In that moment in Jackson when I “changed sides,” some of those barriers began to fall – first within myself, then with others. And I began to glimpse what true sisterhood can mean.
In that period, there was a black poet named Beulah Richardson who wrote a long poem that summed it all up. It was called “A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood,” and it said in part:
“It is right that I a woman
should speak of white womanhood.
die for it, because of it.
And their blood
Chilled in electric chairs,
stopped by hangman’s noose
cooked by lynch mobs’ fire,
spilled by white supremacist mad desire to kill for profit,
gives me that right.
I would that I could speak of white womanhood
as it will and should be
when it stands tall in full equality.
But then, womanhood will be womanhood
void of color and of class,
and all necessity for my speaking thus will be past.
Anne Braden BIO:
Revered white anti-racist southern activist Anne Braden died at the age of 81 March 6, 2006 at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, ending nearly 60 years of unyielding action against segregation, racism, and white supremacy.
Braden catapulted into national headlines in mid-1954 when she and her husband Carl Braden were indicted for sedition for their leadership in desegregating a Louisville, Kentucky, suburb. Their purchase of a house in an all-white neighborhood on behalf of African Americans Andrew and Charlotte Wade violated Louisville’s color line and provoked violence against both families, culminating with the dynamiting of the house in June of 1954. A subsequent grand jury investigation concentrated not on the neighborhood’s harassment of the Wades, but looked to the Bradens’ supposedly communistic intentions in backing the purchase, and they were indicted for sedition that fall. The couple’s sedition case made national news and earned them the ire of segregationists across the South, which was reeling from the U.S. Supreme Court’s condemnation of school segregation in its Brown ruling earlier that spring. Only Carl was convicted, and that conviction was later overturned. The sedition charges left the Bradens pariahs, branded as radicals and “reds” in the Cold-War South, and they became fierce civil libertarians who openly espoused left-wing social critiques but would never either embrace nor disavow the Communist Party publicly because they felt that to do so accepted the terms of the 1950s anticommunist “witch hunts.”
Anne Braden’s memoir of the case, The Wall Between, was published in 1958, becoming one of the few accounts of its era to probe the psychology of white southern racism from within. Their case also introduced the Bradens to the civil rights movement blossoming farther south, in which white allies were few and far between. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., meeting Anne Braden in 1957, pronounced her “the most amazing white woman” in her unswerving dedication to civil rights. The Bradens soon joined the staff of a regional civil rights organization, the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and began traveling the region to solicit greater white support for the movement. As the 1960s dawned, Anne Braden became a mentor and role model to younger southern students who joined the movement, a role she maintained for the rest of her life. Although she was suspect in some circles, Braden publicized and supported the student sit-ins in the pages of SCEF’s Southern Patriot newspaper, which she edited, and she encouraged a broader vision of social change that would include peace and economic justice. She was also instrumental in Louisville’s Open Housing movement in the later 1960s, and among the leading white voices who helped to bring peace to the turbulent second generation of school desegregation, in which busing brought open violence to Louisville and other cities in the mid-1970s.
After Carl Braden’s untimely death in 1975, Anne Braden remained a central proponent of racial justice in Louisville and across the South, eventually evolving from pariah to heroine. Braden’s primary message was the centrality of racism in the U.S. social fabric, but she constantly stressed that civil rights activism was as much whites’ responsibility as it was that of people of color. “Hers has been among the most forceful and persistent of white voices for racial equality in modern U.S. history,” according to her biographer, Catherine Fosl, author of Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (2002).
In speeches delivered in the nearly six decades of her activism, Braden would frequently reflect on her odyssey from segregationist youth to anti-racist advocate: a process she called “turning myself inside out.” Reared in a middle-class, pro-segregation family, Braden changed as a young reporter covering the emerging civil rights movement in 1947 Alabama, where she had observed two separate and unequal systems of justice meted out in the Birmingham courthouse. She subsequently left the supposed neutrality of mainstream journalism to apply her considerable journalistic talents to the aid of African Americans in their quest to end segregation. Her efforts against southern racism, her friend and fellow activist Angela Davis reflected, “enabled vast and often spectacular social changes. . . that most of her contemporaries during the 1950s would never have been able to imagine.”
Decades later, Braden was still working against racism and for justice and peace. In the fall of 2005, she joined other Louisville activists on buses bound for the anti-Iraq War demonstration in Washington D.C. even though she went in a wheelchair. She was a frequent voice in the Rainbow Coalition nationally and a co-founder of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, as well as being active in local issues including police brutality, housing-not-bombs, environmental racism, civil liberties, and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender and other human rights. In the 1990s, she became the recipient of many awards, including the first ever Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty, bestowed on her by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1991. She also became a teacher, offering social justice history courses at the University of Louisville and Northern Kentucky University. Braden was still teaching at the time of her death and was still fired by the passion for justice that had guided her adult life. She had completed a proposal for a local activist summer camp only the day before her hospitalization.
Source: Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and Carl Braden Memorial Center
For more from the Southern Patriot about Anne Braden go to: http://www.annebradenfilm.org