Inside-Out and Upside-Down: An Interviw with Anne Braden

June Rostan talks about multi-racial organizing with one of the South's amazing freedom fighters.

By June Rostan Mar 15, 2001

In 1954, when black people couldn’t use most public facilities or buy homes in segregated neighborhoods, Andrew and Charlotte Wade asked a white couple, Anne and Carl Braden, to buy a house on their behalf in an all-white area of Louisville, Kentucky. The Bradens bought the house, and the uproar that followed changed all their lives. The house was bombed. No one was hurt, but the perpetrators were never caught. Instead, the state charged Anne and Carl with sedition–Carl was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served eight months. Anne wrote a book about this incident, The Wall Between, in 1958 that was reissued by the University of Tennessee last year with a must-read 40-page epilogue. The bombing catapulted Anne into the freedom movement, and since that time she has been at the heart of anything that has to do with race and justice in the South.

Anne and Carl formed a lifetime partnership of social activism and were so committed to self-determination and leadership for people of color that for years they were regarded as pariahs by white liberals and castigated as Communists. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, they worked with civil rights and labor groups in Louisville. In the 1960s, they staffed the extraordinary Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and were central to the civil rights movement. After SCEF broke up in the early 1970s, Anne helped found the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC). Now 76, she works with SOC and the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Repression in Louisville. Anne has set the benchmark for white, anti-racist organizing in the South for more than 50 years.

You have an incredible ability to look at people who opposed you and Carl, to understand where they are coming from and not be judgmental. How were you able to do that?

I never did hate those people who opposed us in the `50s because I knew that I could have been in their position. I was just lucky that I was able to break out of being white in a racist society and privileged in a classist society.

The "open sesame" for my generation was race. Once we could understand what racism had done, then everything fell like a house of cards. It opened everything to question: economic injustice, foreign policy. If you don’t understand white supremacy, then you do not understand the country. The first thing I had to realize was that the people I loved, my family, my friends, the people running Alabama were wrong. But once you realized that, it was not hard to realize that the people running the national government were wrong too.

What did your generation learn from the civil rights movement of the `50s and `60s?

The ’60s were so important because the country had to confront the issue of racism which it was built on. When African Americans began to organize, they were the foundation. The foundation moved and the whole building shook. That is why people were able to organize against the war. That’s why women were able to organize. All that happened because of the black movement.

I think our country was moving tentatively in the `60s toward turning its assumptions, policies, and values upside down. Southern whites of my generation who got involved in the civil rights movement turned our lives around. What we did is what this whole country needs to do: turn itself inside-out and upside-down and build a society that is not based on racism. You have to come to terms with this: that the society you live in is totally wrong and that it is destroying you as well as people of color. I have not overcome racism in myself. I have worked at it for 50 years but I still see life through white eyes.

How do we get other low-income and working-class white people to start working to overcome white supremacy?

If you want to get white people involved in the anti-racist movement, the starting point is not to ask them to give up their privileges. That is not a good organizing approach. White people who are struggling economically or living in terrible poverty have a hard time seeing that they have white privilege.

A lot of white working-class people have been turned off to our movements because they have been put down. There is an assumption among white intellectuals who think they are liberals or anti-racists that all working-class and poor whites are flaming racists. They may have been some of the people who joined the Klan, but I have met just as many flaming racists in the country-club set.

Why do you say that white people have to come to their understanding of racism, not just through an intellectual experience, but through something emotional?

Because racism goes so deep. The kind of emotional experience that can make a difference varies with different people. Some get there through personal relationships. I didn’t meet just one person, I met a movement. A community has to go through a process of turning itself inside-out. I think of Birmingham–it’s not perfect, but it’s better than a lot of places in the South today. It went through the turmoil. White people in Birmingham in the `60s had to look at what the heck was going on. You had four little girls killed when the church was bombed; you had dogs and fire hoses turned on black protesters.

Do you think we can build multi-racial social justice and organizing groups in the South?

The South is not black and white any more. We have growing Latino and Asian populations. And the Native Americans were always here, but we didn’t know it until that movement surfaced visibly in the `60s. To build multi-racial organizations in a racist society is virtually impossible. Impossible means it just takes a little longer. I tell people not to get discouraged if they try and fail, to try again.

I am part of two organizations that are really interracial, multi-ethnic, and definitely led by people of color. They are the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC) and the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Repression. We need more whites who are willing to take action and to serve in organizations with people of color in the leadership. Those of us who are white have to be careful that we aren’t trying to dominate. We are so used to running things.

In the late `40s when it was so repressive, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), which was started in 1938 as an economic justice group, reorganized into SCEF around a single issue: race. There were other issues but Jim Crow segregation had to be dealt with first. SCEF was bi-racial from the beginning. Its outreach was to white Southerners. We wanted to get them involved in action on picket lines and going to jail, not just sitting around in human relations meetings.

When the movement won the lunch counter battle and voting rights, SCEF began to shift back to more economic justice issues, as the black movement did. But then SCEF broke up in 1973. I came to the conclusion that the basic weakness in SCEF was that it became overwhelmingly white. We got this great influx of whites, after SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) told whites to go organize whites. SCEF became a battleground for white people to fight out their quarrels. The real purpose got lost.

I made up my mind then that I would never spend another minute of my life building something that was all or mostly white because it is not going to change anything. It is a waste of time.

We deliberately organized SOC as an interracial group. It has evolved into an organization that is clearly led by people of color.

What about groups that are made up of people of color only?

People of color need their own groups. African Americans and Latinos need their own separate groups. They need self-determination. They need to come together because they are oppressed. White people are not oppressed as white people. That is the difference.

Both the SCHW and SCEF, though interracial, were white-dominated. Yet I kept working to keep them going. I was so determined that we needed some kind of network in the South. I was willing to work for nothing and scrape by. I think SOC may be the only inter-racial group in the country that has evolved from a white-dominated group to a people of color led group, and I am very proud of that. In the mid-`80s some strong African American leadership emerged and took over.

The whole history of the South has been littered with the ruins of movements that brought disenfranchised blacks and whites together and broke up on the shoals of racism. When the chips were down, whites always fled back to the security of their white skins. Principled black-white coalitions don’t work unless there is a strong group in the black community first. The coalitions that fall apart are the white-dominated ones. Once the blacks are well organized and they have their own organizations, then the power relationships change.

What is SOC doing now?

Very exciting work on environmental justice with grassroots groups, primarily African American, all over the South. These are people who live on the fence lines, next to these industries and dumps. They are not civil rights veterans; they are new people. It’s a whole new army. Some of these new leaders are becoming volunteer organizers. My husband used to say it will take 50,000 organizers to organize the South. I don’t care if we put all of our organizations together, we can’t do it with just paid staff. Any social justice movement that made any difference had lots of people involved as volunteers.

Do you think it is important to keep bringing in new people?

That is the biggest weakness of our great progressive movement. We are reluctant to reach the people who are not involved. It’s worst among whites who consider themselves anti-racist. They don’t want to talk to white people who are not involved. Most whites who come into anything interracial go through the stage of working mainly in black communities because it is more comfortable and exciting. That is what I did years ago.

In 1951, I wrote to William Patterson, head of the Civil Rights Congress, about what I was doing, including going to some of the black churches. He wrote me and said, "You don’t need to be going to the black churches, Anne. They don’t need you to tell them that they are oppressed. You need to be talking to the white churches." That changed my life right then.

That was when I really decided that my mission was to get out and talk to white people. That is why I was startled when all these white folks in SNCC got upset when they were told to go organize white people.

Didn’t they know that was what they ought to be doing?

My father, a working-class white man, said to me in the late `60s, "There’s a revolution coming in this country and I don’t have anything to lose from it." Then 10 years later, his attitude was altogether different. He’d gotten this sense that blacks had asked for too much, that they had gone too far.

What do you think happened to change his mind?

He did not come to that conclusion by himself. That was the propaganda that was being put out. The people in control knew what to do to keep control. This was what was being said in academic circles, in government, in the media, everywhere else. He heard that. He didn’t think that up himself.

There was a campaign for the minds of white people and a campaign of repression against blacks. People don’t understand the repression that happened in the late `60s. That movement did not just go away. It was destroyed by repression. They chopped off the black organizers.

It was irrevocably damaging to the country that the movement was blunted at that point. It really was merging the issues. It was taking on economic justice. The unfinished business of the civil rights movement was economic justice.

What is our hope for the future?

I think that there will be a new mass movement. I have been part of three mass movements in my life, times of great drama when things really explode: the upsurge of the `50s and `60s, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the Jesse Jackson campaigns of the `80s. They were movements that really changed things.

At the first meeting of the Jackson delegates in 1984, there were 400 people. People started talking about what was happening in their communities. There were white coal miners from Appalachia, Latinos from New Mexico, people from all over the country. To me, one of the political tragedies of the 20th century is that the grassroots base of the Jackson movement collapsed after 1988. If it had kept going, we’d have a viable third force and an alternative to the two main parties.

Mass movements usually start from a specific struggle. The main thing you do, when you don’t see the mass movement you have been hoping for, is work to build struggles around specific issues. We’ve spent lots of time in Louisville around the police brutality issue. We do the battles at our doorsteps, bringing new people in around specific issues. They are the building blocks. I don’t know when this will explode into a movement. Nobody thought that Montgomery, cradle of the Confederacy, would be the place where the movement would break out in the 1950s.

For whites, none of this will change unless we deal with white supremacy. It’s fine to sit and talk and get your heart in the right place, but it ain’t going to have one bit of impact. Whites need to be visible and engaged. We have to break that solid white wall of resistance.

Do we talk about race or do we just bring people together to organize around common issues?

You have to attack the policies and practices of the society you live in. There are two different forms of attack: the common ground issues and the frontal attack on white supremacist policies and practices. In any community, you need organizations that are doing both. Living wage campaigns are common ground issues. Race and economic justice in this country are so intertwined that you can hardly talk about any economic issue where racism and white supremacy are not also involved. You can deal with a common ground issue and not only leave race out of it but also leave people of color out of it. And then you don’t win. We need an organization in every community that makes a frontal attack on white supremacy. Those organizations need to involve white people and be led by people of color.