Guest Commentary: Anne Braden paved a way for neo-abolitionists

Mar 7, 2006 at 9:11 pm

by Philip Bailey 

“As a Southerner, I have felt it was my duty to address you. I have endeavoured to set before you the exceeding sinfulness of slavery, and to point you to the example of those noble women who have been raised up in the church to effect great revolutions, and to suffer for the truth’s sake.”
Angelina Grimke, “Appeal to Christian Women of the South”

Born to an aristocratic Episcopalian judge who owned slaves, Angelina Grimke could have lived her entire life in pure serenity as a child of plantation privilege. Most elite Southerners nestled in the bosom of that racial system never held the mildest objections to the misery of their human chattel.

Despite her privilege, however, Grimke wrote one of the most audacious anti-slavery pamphlets in American history. In 1836, the “Appeal to Christian Women of the South” was published and Angelina, along with her equally radical sister Sarah, was eventually exiled from her home state of South Carolina under threat of arrest.

Somewhere in heaven Angelina Grimke and Anne Braden are trading stories.
Like Grimke’s appeal, Anne Braden’s views and actions have always been heretical when compared to the majority of white society. In 1954, when she and her husband, Carl Braden, purchased a house in Shively for the Wade family, who were black, they advocated for an America that most whites found undesirable. She consequently put herself in league with a broader historical context of “crazy” whites, who can be traced from antebellum abolitionists to the New Left of the late 1960s. I mean crazy in the noblest sense. Crazy in that Braden’s actions were counter to their own personal comfort and privilege as white Southerners. Crazy in that their actions did not guarantee them acceptance from a wary African-American community, which has always been puzzled by this strange breed of white people who actively and vociferously seek to smash racism even when they do not. Crazy in that she sought to destroy the vestiges of racism “root and branch.”

I met Anne Braden a few years ago when my activism began to burgeon and I experimented with different organizations and personalities. I had known very little about her story or the Wade controversy, but I quickly acquainted myself with her. Her abundant knowledge, personal stories and insights about an era I could only read about gave me a different view on white America. Until then I had encountered only three attitudes from whites regarding race: white supremacy, reactionary conservatism and ambivalent liberalism. Meeting Anne Braden introduced me to an unfounded fourth attitude — neo-abolitionism. Ironically, meeting her was my watershed moment, because I soon found a few, but substantive, neo-abolitionists in and out of the University of Louisville, like history professor Dr. John Cumbler and philosophy professor Dr. David Owen. Among my peers, I got to work with and know students like Ken L. Walker, Josh Jennings, Kristen Valentine and David Peterson.

Because race issues have polluted so much political interaction, I never realized that such a group could exist. Neo-abolitionists debunk generalizations and myths about all white people being rich, powerful, reactionary and biological devils. This group is ignored because they defy the demagoguery of abbreviated polarizations of American racial history. It is so much easier to think in narrow-minded terms from condensed texts and experienced reductionism.

What struck me about Braden the most was that she remained wedded to a movement so many in her generation have either abandoned or romanticized. “What I respected most about Anne was her commitment over time,” said Dr. J. Blaine Hudson, a friend for 40 years who met Braden during the open-housing demonstrations in his high school years. “Even after the Movement was over, she continued to struggle along the same lines,” he said.

Braden made the movement contemporary — a living, breathing and organic extension to my generation. She never used her iconic status to ridicule younger organizers, and she never made her experience a relic to extinguish their passion for extending social justice. In every conversation we shared, Anne Braden would consistently prod the conscience of the community to look at how racism had distorted our politics, values and human interaction. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her sacrifice. Her fire will burn on through generations to come.

Phillip Bailey is a senior at the University of Louisville and chair of Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Contact him at [email protected]