Portrait of a heroine: Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research opens its doors

The Braden Institute has original pressings of many of her writings.

The Braden Institute has original pressings of many of her writings.

Some of the tattered hardback books are stamped “Government’s Exhibit,” tattoos of bold black ink that have turned gray with age. The books loosely adhere to a theme: eastern politics, or that which could be affiliated with communism. In contrast are books labeled “Defendant’s Exhibit” — things like a collection of Plato’s dialogues — meant to infer a broader appreciation of philosophy.

All of these texts are branded uniformly with the names and address of their owners, Anne and Carl Braden, just inside their covers. The books have reached what could be their final resting place, the boxy two-room home of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville, tucked into the second floor of the Ekstrom Library. The institute, which will at once preserve the Bradens’ considerable book and papers collections and work to tie academic research to social justice movements, opens for business today.

Of the Bradens’ 3,200-plus book collection, some 800 were confiscated by the Commonwealth’s Attorney during the 1954 sedition case that made the couple — who considered theirs a “movement marriage” — integrationist heroes to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. Until a couple generations ago, however, they were pariahs at home, as much of Louisville remained mired in the attitudes that followed the national structure of racism.

The Bradens signed closing papers on a house near Shively in mid-May 1954, a proxy purchase for an African-American couple, Charlotte and Andrew Wade; three days later, the Supreme Court struck down school segregation. A cross was burned in the Wades’ front yard the night they moved in; the next day neighbors threw rocks through windows. In June, part of the house was destroyed by a dynamite blast.

No one was prosecuted for those crimes, but the Bradens were soon accused of engaging in a communist plot to undermine the social order. They were tried for sedition in December, and Carl was convicted and given a 15-year prison term, later overturned. It took some four years to get their books back.

Besides her memoir “The Wall Between,” Anne Braden was a prolific pamphleteer.

Besides her memoir “The Wall Between,” Anne Braden was a prolific pamphleteer.

“She was driven by a passion for racial justice,” Catherine Fosl, Anne Braden’s biographer and the director of the institute, said last week. Fosl said Braden was loath to be the subject of “Subversive Southerner,” the biography that assesses her position as a radical in the context of the Cold War South, a volatile mix of irrational fears of communism and integration that played (and preyed) on sensibility and social justice.

Braden, a lifelong journalist and pamphleteer responsible in large part for organizing against racism in the South, was wary of those who wrote about her, Fosl said, because she’d been consistently misrepresented over the years.

The crown jewel of the collection is a first edition of “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” King’s account of the Montgomery bus strike, a watershed moment of the civil rights movement. On the first page, under the Bradens’ identifying stamp, is a simple handwritten note: “To my friends Carl and Anne Braden, whose genuine good will and great humanitarian concern have contributed much in the constant stride toward freedom. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Louisville would do well to learn from Braden, whose six decades of unbroken racial justice activism have yielded countless new activists striving for the simple freedoms that remain elusive to some among us. Louisville would do well to never forget her.

The Braden Institute is open to the public weekdays 9 a.m-4 p.m., with evening and weekend hours by appointment. NAACP chairman Julian Bond will give the first annual Anne Braden Memorial Lecture tonight at 5:30 at the Brown & Williamson Club at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. It’s free and open to the public.

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