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On Walking the Walk

Loretta J. Williams sociologist and activist, directs the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights and Bigotry, which annually honors books, of various genres, which inform and inspire strategies and actions leading to greater equity in a pluralist society. The sixteenth set of winners of the Myers Outstanding Book Awards was announced in December. See for a complete listing.
The Wall Between was originally published in 1958 by Monthly Review Press, and was a finalist then for the National Book Award.

Anne Braden, The Wall Between (2nd edition, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 348 pages, $40 cloth, $20 paper.

Perhaps you, like me, tend to greet reissues in general and memoirs in particular, with a polite ho–hum. Why a reissue now, I ask, and who benefits from this republication? Does anyone lose? But when I read Anne Braden’s analytical memoir, I concluded that we all gain by The Wall Between now becoming available to a wider audience.

The University of Tennessee Press has republished this 1950s true story that has intertwined components of bigotry and racism, impotency among white liberals, anticommunist hysteria, classism, and more. The republication is most timely as we in the United States today wrestle with a society so replete with righteously coded language and tactics, mining social meanness and ideological resentments. Will we once again underestimate the power of totalizing worldviews that mask dominant/subordinate structures of power?

“The success of the system,” wrote Herbert Marcuse, “is to make unthinkable the possibility of alternatives.” How apt that is in reflecting on the events, and turmoil, set in motion by a single act of kindness in the time of legal segregation. Anne Braden, at age thirty, faced a fifteen–year prison term on trumped up charges of sedition. So did her husband.

For some of us, Braden is the real and the legendary activist who continues valiantly working for social and economic justice within the Southern Conference of the past, Southern Organizing Committee of the present, the Kentucky Alliance against Racial and Political Repression, the Racial Justice Working Group convened by the National Council of Churches, and more. Her clarity, commitment and activism against the odds are outstanding. This reissued book, printed as it was in 1958 with the exception of a new forty–one page epilogue, helps us understand the deep roots of her persistent witness. Braden has truly gifted us, young and old, with her analysis of how ordinary actions (her definition) strengthened her evolving insight into hegemonic racial, class and political oppression.

Carl and Anne Braden, journalists and progressives, responded in 1954 to a request from an African–American acquaintance. This book, with cutting–edge analysis, details the opposing forces unleashed by their affirmative act of kindness in Louisville, Kentucky. Anne Braden, a “thirty–something,” immediately chronicled all that occurred when she and her husband disrupted the so–called southern way of life by purchasing a house in a white neighborhood and deeding it over to the Wades, a young African–American couple. Their agreement to purchase the house, once invited to do so by Andrew Wade, was a moral act, not one calculated to contest the legitimating norms of segregation. Their understanding was:

If he was looking for a home where his children would have a chance to stretch their young bodies in the open air and sunshine, he was also looking for a world where he and his family would have the opportunity to stretch the muscles of their spirit in a world that was free, a world that was not hemmed in. A man needs a sense of dignity just as he needs food and shelter—maybe not more than he needs these material things, but just as.

Braden displays gracious diplomacy in her 1958 preface:

We may not have done the wise thing; we may not have done the best thing. But we had to do it. And if it had not been us, it would have been someone else. The people who opposed us, they too did what they thought they had to do—driven on by forces that grow out of the distant and half–forgotten past.

Through Braden’s discussion of the days and weeks following the deeding of the house, we gain insight into white southern ways of seeing African Americans as dependent on the always benevolent generosity of wiser, more superior, white folk. What became known as the Braden–Wade case tells us much about the difficulties in disrupting the hegemonic ways of seeing things.

Yes, we in the year 2001 know the contours of segregation. But this is not another academic tome on race and region. Nor is it a conversion story. What it is, and what makes it distinctive, is that we get to view how one makes meaning out of the crises in thought and commitment that emerge when one walks the walk of one’s beliefs. Braden captures the moment–by–moment suspense about a real, and to them, incredulous, series of events occurring more than four decades ago.

Braden, who still lives in Louisville, tells of her Southern upbringing. She describes the lessons she was taught by goodly Christian folk, parents and church leaders:

If you treat a Negro with kindness he is also good to you—somewhat in the way a pet dog is good to the master who is good to him. And of course [I was taught] the Negro people are happy in this relationship, there is no reason to feel sorry for them—goodness, they are more carefree and happier than most white people and there’s nothing they like better than having some white folks who will take care of them….Most of these things, it is true were never said in worlds. They were impressed on the mind of the white child of the South’s privileged class almost before he could talk by the actions that speak louder than words.

She cites an example from the practices of her parents. Her out-grown clothes were passed on to the servants:

Sometimes [the Negro girl] would come to our house with her mother, wearing one of the dresses I had discarded. The dresses never fitted her because she was fatter than I was. She would sit in a straight chair in our kitchen waiting for her mother, because of course she could not sit in one of our comfortable chairs in the living room. She would sit there looking uncomfortable, my old faded dress binding her at the waist and throat. And some way I knew that this was not what Jesus meant when he said to clothe the naked….I did not analyze it then….But gradually through the years, like a picture slowly coming clear in the developing fluid, the truth appeared before my eyes…: Racial bars build a wall not only around the Negro people but around the white people as well, cramping their spirits and causing them to grow in distorted shapes.

Braden foregrounds theoretical discussions of the ’90s of whiteness as a location of structural advantage, a standpoint and practices, of domination and privilege. Both Bradens understood back then that segregation was one manifestation only of a complex dominant/subordinate system of white supremacy.

I think of a revealing example from Bradens’ early years. She tells the story of an older Southern white man remarking to her: “We have to have a good lynching every once in a while to keep the nigger in his place.” Much later in the text, we learn that it was her father who spoke those words.

The racist terrorizing by whites, and the subsequent red–baiting occurred in the time period just prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the early events of the mid–twentieth century freedom movement.

The Wades and then the Bradens experienced escalating harassment and physical threats: phone calls, a burning cross, and a bombing that made the purchased house unlivable. Their supporters were few in number. Too many people remained silent in the face of the escalation. The spotlight centered not on the perpetrators, but on the white couple and their motivation: a Communist plot that included the purchase, the bombing, the incitement of racial tension.

Braden adeptly shows the reader how things fit together—what academics call intersectionality these days. Braden speaks of her awkwardness in responding to the matron’s inquiry about why she was in jail on that first night. She mumbled an inchoate response, and later reflected for herself on why she was jailed:

I had challenged a whole settled world, a way of life, and this world had struck back…The people defending segregation were desperate; they were convinced that they were right and that the defense of their position was the defense of civilization itself. If I believed in my position enough to challenge them, I must expect to pay a price.

The reader gains insight into the equivocating role that the Louisville Courier played as the sequence of events unfolded. Headlines framed the understandings within the broader community. Again, Braden is ahead of the academic theorists. The editorials and articles failed to ask key questions: In whose interest was the organized response of white segregationists? The panic? For what purpose was the cover–up of the bombers? The collusion of the FBI with prosecutor A. Scott Hamilton in redbaiting?

All of this resulted from action taken to share access, a privileged resource, with African Americans. Fast forward, please: we as a society should have advocated for and established a legal system not based solely on discrimination and the realities of that hydra–headed monster: domination, subordination, privilege.

Back to the timeliness of the book’s reissue. There are debates ongoing about the nature of integration. Many of us argue that the false allure of integration blunted societal transformation. Integration was not central to what black people worked for in the mid–twentieth century. It was the dignity that the Bradens affirmed, and access to the safety and success, however defined, in a racially just world.

Revisionist historians and social scientists using what Daryl Michael Scott calls “damage imagery” have led some to forget how liberal elites, the media, and political influentials down–shifted the emphasis to a singular focus on integration as the end goal (Contempt & Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880–1996). A new liberal civil rights ideology emerged framed around the damage done to black children and adults by enslavement and segregation. Discrimination became the basis for legal jurisprudence; none was established for deconstructing white domination.

Reviewing this history, and the way Anne Braden made sense of it all, confirmed for me that integration per se must not be understood as the ultimate goal, but the means to a wider end of equity. Anne Braden added a too–brief epilogue that provides some insight into how she has held on to a holistic vision of a transformation of the soul of America. (Remember the slogan and buttons of the African–American–led freedom movement—“To Save the Soul of America”—back before all the mystifications about “civil rights”?) The Wall Between helped me think back through the “facts” and myths of the so–called civil rights movement and policy talk of “self–esteem” and role models. As Judith Stein (The Nation, December 14, 1998) has written:

[M]ost people, including African–Americans, engage in politics to improve their lives, not to select their associates or affirm their identity. The desire for change in the social condition of African Americans [is paramount].

The Braden book needs to be reread and discussed as we rethink strategies after the 2000 presidential election—about working towards racial and social justice given the new realities. The road ahead is more difficult, yet the same obstacles remain. Today, as yesterday, our society is based on white privilege and it will continue to be so. This morning’s headline, Files Housing Discrimination Suit Against Miss. Man,” tells today’s tale (Boston Globe, December 5, 2000). Michael and Pamela Keys, African Americans, signed a contract to buy a house in a white Mississippi town of Brandon in the spring of 1999. White neighbor, Chris Hope, threatened the couple with his dogs, and the contents of another neighbor’s gun shop, and promised retaliation upon the Keys children if the couple moved in. This time around HUD took action against the violations of the Fair Housing Act that had led to the Keys not gaining their desired home. HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo is quoted as saying “Racism is alive and well in America today. If you don’t admit it, you are destined to live with it forever.”

True words. But should we feel a sigh of satisfaction? No, not at all. The administrative law judge in this case may eventually make the white perpetrator pay damages. The maximum penalty is $11,000 by federal law. Justice? Hardly. Antidiscrimination laws, and one–by–one prosecution, advance evasive rationalizations and the denial of white privilege. The laws fail to deal with the rooted nature of white supremacy and white advantage in so–called free market capitalism. The resourcefulness of today’s segregationists and anticommunists abounds, as does the financial flowing cornucopia of the John Mellon Scaifes of this world. It is Scaife funding that has helped the Maldon Institute and anticommunist John H. Rees persuade Philadelphia law enforcement that “Communist and left–wing agitators” disrupted last summer’s Republican convention. Hearings on those arrested continue in Philadelphia as I write.

We can bemoan these realities, but we must do more. Expanding the boundaries of the fair and just possible—that is our challenge. Robin D.G. Kelley is not alone in calling the left to mount “…a full–scale assault on white privilege—a new divestment campaign in which white people refuse the benefits of a racist society” (The Nation, December 14, 1998.)

Thanks, Anne Braden, for helping us yet again stick with the hard challenges of walking the talk and the walk.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 06 (November)
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