Renowned African-American Studies professor Robin D.G. Kelley first met civil rights pioneer Anne Braden while researching his first book in the late 1980s. Several years later, they both served on the awarding committee for a scholarship fund that provides grants to student activists.
“Anne Braden was the most adamant about African-American students getting a fair reading and being given as much support as possible,” Kelley says. “She was more militant than me on that, I must say. She was always very consistent, and she never, ever seemed to slow down.”
Professor Kelley says Braden not only provided him with material for his first book — “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression” — but she was the inspiration for a separate essay he wrote on radical groups in Birmingham during the ’50s and ’60s. On Thursday, he will honor his friend by delivering the 6th annual Anne Braden Memorial Lecture.
Braden was born in Louisville in 1924 but was raised in Alabama and worked as a journalist in Birmingham before becoming a civil rights activist. Braden eventually returned to her birthplace, where she and her husband, Carl, faced sedition charges after buying a home for a black family in a segregated Louisville neighborhood in 1954.
The activist, who dedicated a lifetime to striving for social justice, died in 2006 at the age of 82. A year later, the University of Louisville launched the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research.
Cate Fosl, director of the Anne Braden Institute and author of the activist’s biography, “Subversive Southerner,” says the institute’s mission is to work toward a better future. “We never want to be purely an iconic institute so that it’s purely about remembering Anne Braden,” Fosl says. “That’s not what she would have wanted.”
The institute strives to bridge the gap between academia and social justice groups by doing studies on issues like fair housing, racial healing and hiring practices, in addition to holding an annual memorial lecture.
Fosl sought out Kelley — now a professor at UCLA — because Anne Braden once suggested she read “Hammer and Hoe.”
“We’re really excited to have him here, and I think he’s excited to reconnect with people,” says Amber Duke, program coordinator for the Anne Braden Institute and a former student of Kelley’s from his days at NYU. “This lecture is an opportunity for us to show off what the Braden Institute is about and how it’s changed over the years.”
Like the Anne Braden Institute, Kelley also combines academia and activism. He is the author of “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” and “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.” His books explore the interplay between race, art and politics.
The title of Kelley’s upcoming lecture is “Neoliberalism and the War on our Youth,” a theme he chose after hearing about the recent spate of violence in west Louisville. Neoliberalism is a philosophy that calls for open market, deregulation, and the privatization of government services. Kelley points to the erosion of public education and the privatization of prisons (a growth industry thanks to the “War on Drugs”) as two neoliberal concepts affecting young people. He also says truancy laws, which often penalize students from poor homes, are another component of what he considers a “War on Youth.” These are problems, he says, that will not be resolved by voting Democrat or Republican.
“We’re having an election right now where young people are only factoring in as a political demographic,” Kelley says. “We keep talking about the young people vote without considering the kind of political movements that young people are engaged in that have nothing to do with whether they are going to come out and vote. They say young people are apathetic and they want hope and change, and all this other silly stuff. Young people are getting killed in the street right now. Young people can’t go to decent schools right now.”
Kelley’s lecture comes at a time when interest in Braden is growing. Appalshop — a media collective documenting Appalachian culture — recently released “Anne Braden: Southern Patriot,” a movie that will air on KET throughout November.
Kelley says it’s important to remember Braden’s example because there are still many hurdles to achieving social justice.
“I’m coming to Louisville with great, great pride,” he says. “Pride in the city and pride in anything to do with Anne Braden, who is a real American hero.”