Martin Luther King first met Anne Braden in September 1957 at the 25th anniversary celebration of Highlander Folk School
. As field organizers for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), an organization committed to ending segregation through direct action, advocacy, and education, Anne and Carl Braden epitomized southern white radical thought and practice. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail
,” King singled out Anne Braden as one of the white southerners who understood and was committed to the civil rights movement.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1924, Anne McCarty graduated from Randolph-Macon Women’s College in 1943. Four years later she went to work at the Louisville Times, where she met Carl Braden, a journalist and union organizer. Carl Braden, originally from Portland, a poor white section of Louisville, had grown up imbued with the socialist teachings of Eugene Debs. The couple married in 1948 and became public relations directors for the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In that year they also supported the newly organized Progressive Party.
In 1954 the Bradens purchased a home in a white Louisville neighborhood and, in an effort to promote integration, sold it to a black family. After the home was bombed, Kentucky officials arrested the Bradens for plotting to incite insurrection. Anne Braden described the incident in her 1958 memoir, The Wall Between, which became a National Book Award finalist. Unable to secure jobs at southern newspapers, the couple became field organizers for SCEF, an organization accused of having Communist ties.
In 1957 the Bradens became co-editors of the organization’s monthly newsletter, the Southern Patriot
. As the newsletter grew in stature, it increased coverage of national civil rights activities, sometimes including material written by King. Most notably, in 1960 the Bradens published contrasting perspectives on the role of violence as an instrument of social change, written by King and Robert F. Williams
. King admired Anne Braden’s work with the newspaper and praised her for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms” (King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 89).
As King’s visibility in the movement increased, he was often criticized for his association with the Bradens, due to their alleged Communist ties. In February 1959, when Carl Braden was sentenced to 12 months in prison for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, King’s colleagues from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC) advised him to distance himself from the couple’s legal problems. However, in an October 1959 letter to Anne he expressed his hope that the couple would become permanently associated with SCLC.
After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Carl Braden’s conviction in February 1961, Anne Braden mounted a clemency campaign for her husband and asked King to initiate a petition. King initially did not respond to Anne’s entreaties but, shortly before Braden entered prison on 1 May 1961, King attended a reception in Atlanta in Braden’s honor and consented to sign a petition supporting clemency. “I think Martin did compromise on occasions when he thought it was the best tactic, but I don’t think he was ever doing those things for personal aggrandizement,” Braden said. “In our case, there was absolutely nothing he was going to get out of signing our petition except a lot of trouble” (Fosl, 274).
After more than two decades in the civil rights struggle, the Bradens became executive directors of SCEF in 1967. They retired in 1972 due to ideological conflicts within the organization. After Carl suffered a fatal heart attack in 1975, Anne, along with other former SCEF members, created the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice. Anne remained a vocal and consistent voice for civil rights reform until her death in 2006.