Lessons for Today From Anne Braden

By Michael Kaufman

When we think of prisons the images that usually come to mind are of barred cells, armed guards, and barbed wire. But Anne Braden, who devoted her life to the causes of civil rights and social justice, offered another perspective. Braden, who died in 2006 at age 82, observed that society builds prisons around people. She said she was born privileged in a class society and white in a racist society. And it was hard to break out of those prisons.

“The hardest thing was class,” she said. “I don’t know that I ever could have broken out of what I call the race prison if I hadn’t dealt with class.” The comment appeared in an article I read recently but it was the sentence that followed that really hit home as a reflection of life in the United States today. “It’s that assumption that is so embedded in you that you don’t realize it’s there—that your crowd is supposed to be running things.”

That was surely Mitt Romney’s assumption and that of those who paid $50,000 for dinner to hear his infamous “47 percent” speech deriding government “entitlements.” What other explanation can there be for the vehement opposition of millionaires to a modest increase in the minimum wage? It explains how people like Charles Krauthammer and Fox News (sic) commentators can ask what all the fuss was about when speaking of the sequester. They simply don’t know anyone affected by it.

And now that the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court of the United States, it is how they can proclaim that racism is a thing of the past. We have a Black president don’t we? In reality the provisions of the Voting Rights Act should have been extended to include states it had not covered before (i.e., all states in which voter suppression plans were authorized by state and local legislatures). Again, words spoken by Anne Braden in 1980 ring true: “The real danger comes from people in high places, from the halls of Congress to the boardrooms of our big corporations, who tell white people that if their paychecks are eaten up by taxes it’s not because of our bloated military budget but because of government programs that benefit black people. If young whites are unemployed, it’s because blacks are getting all the jobs. Our problem is the people in power who are creating a scapegoat mentality. That is what is creating the danger of a fascist movement in America.” Today the scapegoat mentality has expanded to fuel right-wing extremist organizations and armed militias targeting undocumented immigrants.

Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 1,360 right-wing militias and anti-government groups, an eight-fold increase over 2008, when it recorded 149 such groups. The explosive growth that began in 2008 was sparked by the election of President Obama and anger about the poor economy, according to a report issued earlier this year by the center. And that growth is likely to continue as the groups recruit more members with a pro-gun message, the center’s senior fellow Mark Potok told USA Today.

“This country was built on white supremacy,” Anne Braden said in 2004, explaining that she prefers using the term “white supremacy” to “racism” because “it’s more what we really mean—you don’t have to get into endless arguments about whether Blacks can be racist.” And if you understand that the original wealth of this country came from slavery and the slave trade itself was based on the assumption of white supremacy, you can see how white supremacy was “built into the institutions, including the courts, from the beginning.”

“Anne pointed out that as long as race could be used to get a majority of white Americans to oppose efforts for a more just society, there will be no hope of ending poverty, homelessness, environmental destruction, inequality, or of making the kind of transformative change imperative if democracy is to be real in our nation,” wrote Janet Tucker in a review of Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, a documentary film about Braden’s life. Southern Patriot was the name of the newspaper Anne edited during the many years she and her husband Carl worked for the Southern Conference Educational Fund.

The Bradens are probably best known for a 1954 incident in which they purchased a house in an all-white neighborhood of Louisville and, in a pre-arranged transaction resold it to a black family. A cross was burned on the lawn, the house was bombed, and the buyer, Andrew Wade, decided to move his young family out of the house because of fear for their safety. Instead of going after the whites who planted the bomb, the Bradens were tried—and Carl jailed—on charges of sedition, attempting to overthrow the government of Kentucky. The conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anne encouraged white Americans to become active in the civil rights movement but not simply as “something we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because, in truth, they do.” Many, however, still need to break out of their prisons.

Michael can be reached at mchael@zestoforange.com.

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