We stood on her shoulders. All of us race traitors, us "whiggers," us "n—– lovers," and white folks that decided that we'd rather cast ourselves into the identity oblivion than sit one more minute comfortably on the porch of white supremacy. She was a worker, and so we knew we had to work. She loved the South because she knew what it could be, and so we did. She sat and talked with us, and so we shared. She never backed down.
Anne Braden died today.
Others who knew her, and others who studied her life more intensely, will write with much more expertise about the particulars of her journey than I can muster. In particular, I would recommend the recent work Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South by Catherine Fosl. I can't think about specifics right now, I'm still stuck in the dizzying spirit drop that set in immediately after I read the news today.
Many of you reading this won't even know who Anne Braden was. Like the Grimke sisters, and John Brown, and, and, well — damn, see, the names just don't come that easily — Anne chose to eschew the plunder of whiteness for a lifetime of struggle for racial justice. This struggle had high and low points, as it spanned over 50 years of activism and organizing, and it deserves to be memorialized.
You can bet we’re not going to find her name gracing a textbook, street sign, or holiday any time soon though. Anne rejected white supremacy flatly, then spent her life working to dismantle it. They can’t tell us white kids what it was that she was doing. We might see the sense in it and follow along. We might search for the last remaining bits of humanity they’ve trained us to cloak so deeply and struggle to make them manifest. We might be mad that they hid it from us for so long. We might have to destroy their system.
They have to erase her existence. Or color her crazy like ole John Brown.
That‚s one of the tricks of white supremacy: keeping white kids from knowing that there‚s anything else. White people can end white supremacy. I’ll say that again: us white folks can end white supremacy. Tomorrow. We’re the ones that hold it up. We’re the ones who benefit from it. We’re the ones who run the institutions and keep the resources that place, and maintain, the boot of oppression on the necks and souls of people of color worldwide. We’re the ones who pretend to not even notice its existence. And if nobody ever shows us that we can choose otherwise, we’re just going to continue on doing so. Why would we do anything else?
That’s why we have to remember Anne Braden.
I only met Anne Braden once. It was the summer of 2001, and I was attending a gathering of the National Organizers Alliance in California. Anne had been invited to speak on a panel with other “firestarters” like Delores Huerta, Tim Sampson, Elizabeth Martinez, and Mandy Carter. I didn’t get to attend the session, and, in fact, didn’t even know who Anne Braden was, but I ended up in a workshop with her later on in the day. Anne’s graceful fire consumed the whole room. I sat on the floor because the space was so full, and I felt like a small child at the foot of Jesus. Who was this woman laughing deadly serious about not trusting a roomful of white people to do anything good on their own? Her charm was magnetic, and I hung on every word. White supremacy was a sham. The only way out was organization. White people had to step aside and follow the leadership of people of color. White people could redeem ourselves, could make our lives worth living, if we were willing to fight. Young whiteboys don’t get to hear this too often, you know?
Even later in the afternoon, I attended a workshop led by the Bus Riders Union from Los Angeles. They were sharing their strategies on using the public transportation system to build a base of working-class women’s leadership for change. Added together, the ages of the two BRU organizers fell decades short of Anne’s late 70s. But there she was, in the mix with the rest of us, anxious to glean lessons from their experiences.
She had no reason to listen to these rookies. These folks hadn’t stared down the terror of Senator Joe McCarthy. They hadn’t organized against lynchings and Jim Crow in the commie-fearing South of the 1950s. They hadn’t had their lives threatened, their partners imprisoned for years, or fought for, and helped win, the freedom of the likes of Angela Davis and Ben Chavis.
None of that mattered to Anne Braden. Her humility was startling. And as I spent the workshop, and the 2-3 hour conversation with her, the organizers of the workshop, and two other inspiring organizers that followed, it became clear that I was in the presence of greatness. Her excitement about the BRU was childlike. She needed to know everything about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how the rest of us could use it. She patiently prodded me for to make conclusions about organizing dilemmas that I was facing back in the North Carolina. She was the honored guest, and she spent the afternoon asking us questions like we were.
Anne Braden was tireless. She had long ago earned the right to retire and rest, but she woke each morning to create a list of things that needed doing that day, and went to bed each night knowing that there was still more to do. Anne Braden was a leader. She, along with her good friend Ella Baker, influenced and facilitated the growth of multiple generations of young people in Southern freedom movements. Anne Braden was humble enough to admit that she was part of the problem and determined enough to put her life on the line every day as part of the solution.
White people need to know Anne Braden. We need to know that we have options, that the spoils of whiteness come up short when measured against the soul of struggle. We need heroes and examples and teachers. We need to know that resistance to white supremacy is a lifelong journey that you can never leave. We need her grace and her enthusiasm and her humility.
White people fighting for the end of white supremacy have been standing on the shoulders of Anne Braden for over 50 years now. Many of us without even knowing it. Because of her resistance, many of us have found our humanity, have woken up each day with a purpose, and dug in for the long haul. The strength of her foundation has helped us to know that we are not crazy, we are not alone, and that we will win.
Thank you Anne. You’ve made us all a little bit taller. May you at last find rest.