by Micki Luckey
In The Wall Between we are extremely fortunate to have Anne Braden’s own account of how she left behind a traditional upbringing in Alabama and Mississippi to actively work against segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. She details her insight into the steps of her changes in consciousness, followed by an act with consequences she hadn’t foreseen. As Julian Bond wrote in his foreword to a second printing of the book (1999), “Anne and [her husband] Carl Braden belong to a small band of modern abolitionists willing to brave danger in pursuit of the unfinished American racial revolution.” (p.xiii) What brought Anne to that point?
Anne describes her childhood as happy and uneventful, although she was bothered by the contrast between the teachings of her Episcopal church about a “brotherhood of man” and the comfortable assumption that God had made some people (whites and the financially secure) superior to others (Blacks and poor people.) At 4 or 5 years old, she was chastised for saying “a colored lady” (“You say colored woman and white lady” p. 21). A few years later she was bothered by seeing her discarded dresses on the daughter of a ‘colored woman’ who worked for them: “And I knew that if I were in her place… I would not want the old abandoned dresses of a person who would not even invite me to come into her living room to sit down.” (p.23) Later she was truly shocked when her kind and loving father stated, “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.” (p. 25, p. 331)
As a teen, Anne gradually came to feel tortured by the unfair race bars around her. She recognized then what became an important framework for the book, “Racial wars build a wall not only around the Negro people but around white people as well, cramping their spirits and causing them to grow in distorted shapes.” (p. 24, her italics) Anne’s conviction that segregation walls off the souls of whites as it walls off the physical spaces available to Blacks allowed her to examine the deep-seated beliefs and social limitations of all the people in the story, probing what causes them to act as they do. Her honesty and understanding of others make the book well worth reading, but let’s return to our focus on her experiences.
A life-changing occurrence happened at age 19 when Anne was invited to dine with a friend from home and her Black friend in New York City. This was the first time Anne met a Black person as an equal, and in conversation she lost her sense of their different races. “We were no longer white and Negro, we were just two women talking about things we liked to talk about.” (p.27) The discovery that “There is no race problem… there are only the people who have not realized it yet” gave Anne hope and a foundation for her life’s work.
Back in Alabama working as a newspaper reporter covering the police courts and the courthouse, Anne found that as she looked at people as “just human beings”, “The concepts of inferior and superior began to melt away…The pillars of my own world began to crumble...” (p.28) Observing firsthand the different application of laws to whites and Blacks, she was upset to realize that she had internalized the newsroom categories in spite of her conscious desire to see all people as equals. “I was part of this white world that considered a Negro life not worth bothering about. If I did not oppose it, I was part of it.” (p.28) This conviction led her to move in 1947 to Louisville, KY, where Anne was startled to learn that “Negroes” voted and some white people openly opposed segregation. However, she felt the effects of segregation when walking downtown with a Black friend who couldn’t try on a dress or cool off with a drink in the drugstore. “I think I got some inkling that day walking along Louisville’s main street—hot and thirsty and with no place I could quench my thirst—of what it meant every minute of the day, every hour of your life to be a Negro in a segregated society—even here in Louisville, a border city on the very edge of the Mason-Dixon Line.” (p.42)
In Louisville Anne worked as newspaper reporter, joined the NAACP and other groups opposed to segregation, and married Carl Braden. Decades later she wrote, Carl “had been my liberator from the prisons of my childhood. Through him I found new worlds I never knew existed…” (p. 328) Unlike Anne, Carl had known hunger as a kid, with working class parents (his socialist father was a follower of Eugene Debs), but like Anne he was a newspaper reporter and committed to human rights. They met in 1947 and worked together on the job until she stayed home to raise their very young children. They also did anti-segregation work together, enjoying the comradery of whites and Blacks who formed friendships in the labor union functions. Organizing a women’s auxiliary of the union, Anne watched from close range the effects of these friendships “as racial prejudice melted away...not by intellectual arguments alone. There must be some real emotional experience, such as a deep friendship across the race bars.” (pp.49, 51)
Anne said that Carl was “a person who did not hesitate to take decisive action in the face of injustice” (p. 18), so it did not surprise her when in 1954 he proposed they buy a house as requested by Andrew Wade. It seemed a simple decision, one they made without much thought. Andrew, an intelligent and well-spoken WWII veteran and an electrician with a pregnant wife and a two-year old child, had been striving to buy a nice house. The only new houses were in all-white districts, where he was not allowed to make a purchase. With determination and some desperation, he asked the Bradens to buy the house he wanted, and to sell it to him the next day.
Their act was to have extreme consequences. When the seller and other neighbors realized a “Negro” (even one with very light skin) was the new owner, they reacted with panic and violence. As soon as Andrew started moving in furniture, the anonymous calls to the Bradens started and became frequent and threatening. A threatening mob surrounded their home the night that the seller learned they had sold to Andrew. The next night a cross was burned in the lot adjacent to the Wade’s new house, and a rock was thrown in the front window carrying a note, “Nigger get out.” The threatening phone calls continued and intensified. Two nights later, when Andrew’s family and a friend spent their first night at the house, ten rifle shots were fired through the kitchen door, fortunately missing the terrified residents. In the morning, police, reporters and photographers appeared and the story made the front page of the paper, alerting the whole city to the situation.
In response to the violence, Anne made many phone calls to rally support both from the local ministers and also from the liberal townspeople, but none would take a stand. She felt that a quick condemnation of the violence and a call for understanding would calm things down. Instead the local newspapers fanned the flames, blaming the Bradens for stirring up trouble, and suggested it was a project of the Progressive Party (even though that party had been inactive for some years), a fabrication that was supported in editorials by white supremacists. The following week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to end school desegregation, which added to the panic of white townspeople.
At this point Anne acknowledged that “facing physical threats was something new to me… I was startled and dismayed.” (p.65) However, watching Andrew and his wife remain dignified after the shots, she reported, “I suddenly felt a flash of shame at my own fear …” (p.68)
The trouble wasn’t over. Next the home insurance was cancelled, then the bank demanded full payment of the mortgage with a foreclosure suit headed to court, where the Bradens and Wades argued “that the bank was attempting to use the courts to enforce a secret restrictive covenant” (p.105), what we now call red-lining. Andrew Wade sought alternative financing, but also began having difficulty in his business as an electrician. The Black community (and a small number of whites) had responded with formation of a Wade Defense Committee, which helped Andrew get a new insurance policy. The Committee also found people who would stay at the house with his wife and child while Andrew was at work and give extra help overnight if called upon to defend it. Determined not to give in to the threats and hoping it would blow over and their life could become normal, the Wades made sure someone was at the house all the time.
Threats to both the Wades and the Bradens continued, including threats on their lives and even rumors that the Wade home would be blown up (which indeed occurred on June 26). Anne reflected on the difference between the abstract assumption “that I would be willing to give my life for the things I thought were right” and “facing the actual possibility in a concrete situation.” (p.129) She moved her children’s beds into the hall where they would be least likely to be hit by stray bullets, and she and Carl slept downstairs where they could listen for prowlers. At night she sat outside and waited for Carl’s 2 am return from work, often with company from sympathetic neighbors or visitors sent by Andrew to make sure she was okay. After a lifetime of pacifism, she now kept a gun nearby. “I never had to use it, but it was there.” (p.133) This change impressed me as much as all the others. When first offered a gun for her defense, Anne said that she was “horrified at the thought, I had never owned a gun, had never shot one. …I felt I could not live with myself for the rest of my life feeling that I had killed a person…even if he intended to kill me.” (p.132) Only after a direct threat on her little boy did she allow Andrew to give her a pistol. Her commitment to nonviolence gave way to the need to defend her family -- I can only imagine that I might do the same.
And yet, after the Wade home was bombed and the police put her house under 24-hour surveillance because it could be next, Anne found herself more tired than frightened. She did what she had to do, now taking her children to sleep at neighbors’ houses, keeping watch with Carl. It seemed she had gotten used to danger, although the danger seemed lessoned when they were told a suspect had confessed and arrests were imminent.
Strangely those arrests were not made, and when a grand jury finally investigated the bombing charges were made –not against the bombers but against Carl, Anne and a few white supporters. Amazed and indignant during her questioning, Anne refused to answer. But it was the time of McCarthyism, and the prosecutor built a case that the whole thing was a Communist plot. Using an old sedition law he charged the Bradens with attempting to overthrow the government, which carried $10,000 fine and a prison sentence of 21 years. “I seemed to feel an icy hand clutch in the pit of my stomach. It must be a dream…” Anne reacted. (p.211) She thought deeply about how the forces of law and order had always been on her side but were now arrayed against them. In jail she gave in to her exhaustion, saying it was like being knocked down by a big wave in the ocean.
Anne was in jail for a week, until her father was allowed to pay her bail. She then found herself in a campaign to raise Carl’s bail, which took much longer. When Carl went on trial in a courtroom full of hysteria, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison plus a $5000 fine. After the trial Anne felt “lonely and futile.” (p.263) “I wanted to give up the fight” (p.314) and “I felt like my life was over…(p.337) Waiting for her own trial and unable to work because of her reputation as a subversive, Anne felt depressed for the only time. Finally in July 1955 the $40,000 bail was raised to get Carl out. Carl, Andrew and Anne traveled the country and found support from many people opposed to McCarthy who appreciated their situation. In 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court (ruling in a different case) struck down state sedition laws, leading to a dismissal of Carl’s case by the Kentucky Appeals Court. The prosecution then dropped charges against Anne and the other defendants, bringing the three years of persecution and suspense to an end in 1957. The Bradens continued their work for civil rights. The Wades settled for an old house in the “Negro” section of town. Looking back, Anne concluded that the anti-Communist accusations built on hysteria and lies were harder to bear than the anti-segregation acts by people who were only living according to their reality and the rules set up by the history of our country.
Anne was always clear that her choice was either to say “Yes” and help the Wades or to say “No” and uphold segregation and all that comes with it. Years before I wore the button that said “If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” Anne Braden lived by it. She made the choice to work against segregation and dedicated the rest of her life to racial justice. In 1999 she wrote, this work and “this sense of connection have given me the strength to keep going, feeling that in my small way I am a part of a long chain of humanity, a chain of struggle that stretches far into the past, long before I was here, and will go into the future, long after I’m gone.” (p.348) To Anne, this was the key to living a fulfilling life.
Because they each took a stand for basic human rights – the right of a Black American to buy a nice home, the right of well-meaning Northerners to help Black Southerners register to vote—both the Bradens and the Heffners took stands against their white communities and were subjected to general disapproval, mean slander, and eventually threats against their safety. Both stories show such courage and integrity. They make me ask, Will I find that courage when I need it? Am I ready to stand for human rights today?
Photo of Andrew Wade and family in 1954 from www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2014/12/01/louisville-civil-rights