Living history in “Anne Braden: Southern Patriot”

I thought I knew about legendary civil rights activists Carl and Anne Braden before I saw this remarkable documentary, “Anne Braden: Southern Patriot,” by Anne Lewis and Mimi Pickering. I was very wrong.

The documentary features Anne Braden speaking near the end of her life before college classes, and commentaries by  her biographer, Catherine Fosi. It also includes scholar civil rights/civil liberties  leader and former Communist Party USA vice presidential candidate Angela Davis; Vincent Harding (leading scholar of African American history) and others whose lives Anne Braden touched and and enriched. It connects beautifully the personal with the political to tell the story of a woman whose life intersected and addressed the major issues confronting modern U.S. society.

Anne, to borrow a key concept from Karl Marx’s “Capital,” lived her life  fully with and for its “use value,” confronting the contradictions of the time and enriching community and society – rather than  a life lived for its  “exchange value ” that is, to accumulate  personal wealth, status and fame, indifferent to community and society    

Anne Braden grew up in relative privilege in post-World War I Alabama. She didn’t begin  confront the central question of her society, what she later saw as the dehumanizing institutional racism of  the  “Southern police state,” until she became a newspaper reporter following events in a Birmingham, Ala.,  courthouse during  World War II.  

The U.S. was at war with Hitler/Axis/fascism, which she came to realize was also a war against “our [meaning the segregationist South’s] ideology.”

In Birmingham 70 years ago she saw an African American man sentenced to 20 years in prison for the way he looked at a white women. When an African American waitress asked her later what had happened in the courthouse, she said it was “just a colored murder,” and watched with  guilt as the waitress trembled before her.  

This was the “ordinary racism” of the Southern police state.

Anne also came to realize that without understanding class relations, “classism,” one couldn’t either fully understand or overcome racism. Like her later friend Martin Luther King, she was always a Southerner, never rejecting the language, literature, food, music, of the culture into which she was born and raised.

In 1947, she left Alabama for Louisville, Ky., and met and married Carl Braden, who came from a working class American socialist family.  Together, they worked in the following decades for worker’s rights against brutal coal mine operators; risked their lives in 1954 in Kentucky  to try to sell a home  to an African American family;  endured terrorist threats, arrests and imprisonment, published while they could The Southern Patriot; and through organizations like the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) became valued allies of civil rights activists like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (who appears in the documentary) and his close associate, the Rev. Martin Luther King.

In the process Anne and Carl Braden influenced many people who came into contact with them through a reasoned and responsible progressivism.

Anne and Carl were red-baited and of course worked closely with real “card carrying” Reds all of their political lives. Who else would they work with? Anti-Communist liberals who spoke about the need to end segregation in order to win the Cold War in the “Third World” while they supported loyalty oaths and political purges in the U.S.?

One might say that the Bradens were as much a part of a larger “Communist-led” resistance movement as the Viet Minh during and after World War II in Vietnam, the partisan forces in wartime Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy, fighting against a dictatorship that used racism and police terror to sustain its power.

“Anne Braden: Southern Patriot” deserves  to be seen on American public television and perhaps, MSNBC, the commercial cable network that reaches out to media’s most neglected market, the broad American left. It deserves to be ordered by college and high school libraries through the country. It even richly deserves to be banned by right-wing dominated Texas and Arizona school boards and education departments, which would probably help its general circulation, since today that is a badge of honor.

Finally, it deserves to be shown at the White House by President Obama, as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt once showed films and documentaries with serious social content.

At least, readers should find purchase the documentary in DVD form for home use and encourage friends and local libraries to purchase it.

More information is available at the film’s Facebook page.

As a companion piece, readers might also purchase Catherine Fosi’s excellent biography, “Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South.” With a forword by Angela Davis, it is a sophisticated and sensitive analysis of Anne Braden’s life and times and their larger meaning.

Photo: Braden with megaphone, via the film’s Facebook page.


Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.