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Two Remarkable Women
A review by Jo Freeman published in Women's Review of Books, September, 2003, Vol. XX, No. 12, pp. 21-22.

Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-8078- 2778-9, 470 pages, $34.95 hardcover.

Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, by Catherine Fosl, New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2002. ISBN: 0-312-29457-5, 418 pages, $35 hardcover.



Ella Baker and Anne Braden were remarkable women. One was black and one was white. Both were born and raised in the South. Braden stayed while Baker made her home in New York, though she often worked in the South. Both were pioneers who bravely faced physical and social threats while living a precarious financial existence in order to devote their lives to liberating African Americans from segregation and the racism which underlay it.

Catherine Fosl and Barbara Ransby have written excellent biographies based on extensive research into manuscript collections, personal interviews, and secondary sources. Ransby's book began as her 1996 dissertation, which is reflected in its more academic tone. Since her subject died in 1986, she interviewed Ella Baker's friends, family, and co-workers. She also refers to interviews with Baker done by others. In contrast, Anne Braden is still alive. Fosl quotes her extensively and ruminates on the challenges of writing about someone who will read her book. She found "the emotionally and intellectually complicated world of biography with a living subject" to be a "battle of wills that persisted for years" even though Fosl and Braden were also friends. Writing in an accessible style, Fosl begins with a useful chronology of Anne Braden's life, which makes it easy to refer back to key points while reading the rest of the book. Both authors offer insight into the lives of these women and the times in which they lived.

Their times encompassed the entire 20th century, beginning with the early decades when segregation and disenfranchisement were embedded in law and acceptable to all but a handful of whites throughout the US. While blacks always objected to and often resisted their second-class treatment, until after World War II, only a few whites--and fewer white Southerners--listened. The return of black veterans, the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, and the desire of the US to find allies among the newly independent nations of Africa, cracked the facade of racism and opened up the political space through which the civil rights movement flowed.

The lives of both women, and the organizations and causes they worked for, were shaped by the culture of anti-Communism that pervaded the US for most of the 20th century. Both women have extensive FBI files, and both were harassed because of their dedication to social change and their left-wing sympathies. In the South, Communism was equated with integration; anyone promoting the latter was assumed to be part of the former. In the North, it was equated with agitation; outspoken challengers of the status quo were suspect and constantly placed on the defensive. In fact, Communist Party members had been on the cutting edge of integration as well as labor organizing, but they were also liabilities because of their willingness to follow shifts in the party line and their label as enemies of the US in the cold war. Natural allies frequently fought and often split over how to deal with Communists, real and imagined, in their midst.

Ella Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, where she lived until age seven, when her mother returned to her own hometown of Littleton, North Carolina. Baker stayed in North Carolina until she graduated from Shaw University in 1927. From then on, Harlem was her home, though she lived, toured, and stayed in Southern towns when her work required it. That work was facilitating social change, through many different organizations, four dozen of which are listed in an appendix. Getting paid for this work was a constant challenge. Ransby identifies Baker's sources of income throughout the book, but there are large gaps when it is not at all clear how she paid her bills.

From 1940 to 1947 Baker worked in the national office of the NAACP, first as a field secretary and then as national director of branches. She traveled extensively, organizing and encouraging chapter formation. She repeatedly clashed with Executive Director Walter White over his preference for a top-down structure. Baker, according to Ransby, favored a decentralized structure where chapters developed their own action programs. She organized numerous leadership training conferences so chapters could be more than just "cheerleaders and fund-raisers for the national office."

Baker's success and outspokenness caused increased tension with White. This, and a "lack of internal democracy that prevented internal dialogue" drove her to leave, even before she had found another job. For the next few years she did "odd jobs with several civil rights and community service organizations" in New York. She remained loyal to the NAACP, becoming the first woman president of the New York City chapter in 1952.

After the Montgomery bus boycott started in December 1955, Baker joined with activists Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison to form the group In Friendship, which channeled Northern resources to the Southern civil rights movement. After the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 to continue the struggle started in Montgomery, Rustin and Levison persuaded SCLC's new president, Martin Luther King Jr., to hire Baker as SCLC's first staff member. Baker went to Atlanta to put together the new organization and its first projects. She started literally from scratch, finding and furnishing her own office. However, Baker did not like King, and he in turn did not want a woman running SCLC. She helped select SCLC's first executive director and returned to New York.

Under various umbrellas, Baker continued her organizing activities throughout the South, and in the spring of 1960 became godmother to still another organization--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Seeing potential in the student sit-ins against segregation that proliferated throughout the South that spring, Baker brought the young protesters to a conference at Shaw University. For the rest of SNCC's life, through many changes in leadership and direction, she was its adviser and nurturer. It was at her urging that SNCC concentrated on organizing in the small towns of the South and tried to reach decisions through discussion and consensus. Baker did not support SNCC's turn to black nationalism and racial separation in the mid-1960s, but she "continued to aid and defend SNCC" while shifting her energies to other causes and organizations.

It's not clear when Baker first met Anne Braden, but by the late 1950s they were fast friends. Braden was raised as a Southern belle and spent her life as a Southern pariah. Although her youth was spent in Anniston, Alabama, Braden was born in 1924 in Louisville, Kentucky, where her family had been pioneer settlers in the 18th century. A descendant of slaveholders and Confederate veterans, Braden devoted her life to campaigning against racism.

After graduating from Randolf-Macon Woman's College in 1945, Braden became a journalist, first in Anniston and then in Louisville. There she met and married a colleague on the Louisville Times. Carl Braden was ten years her senior and barely divorced. A high-school drop-out who had learned his trade on the job, Carl was a radical, son of an active socialist and railroad worker who, "inspired by the Russian Revolution," named his son after Karl Marx. Anne had begun to question the status quo, especially regarding race, but she was not yet the passionate radical she would become. Through Carl, Anne became involved in a variety of left-wing organizations and causes.

While Carl enlarged her world, it was race that turned Anne inside out. She told Fosl, "I came to identify with the oppressed instead of the oppressor... I realized that I had grown up part of a privileged class that enjoyed its place in society because not only black people but because most of the rest of the population was subjugated."

In 1954 an African American couple who had known the Bradens casually asked for their help in buying a house in a white suburb of Louisville. The Bradens readily agreed to act as intermediaries, never occupying the premises. A month after the new black owners moved in, the house was dynamited. A police investigation failed to find a suspect, while a suburban newspaper insisted that the bombing was an "inside job." When the Bradens and five other white supporters demanded that the investigation continue, the district attorney indicted them for sedition. He claimed that the home purchase was "part of a Communist plot to stir up racial friction in an otherwise contented community."

Kentucky was one of 21 states that had passed sedition laws during the red scare that followed the Russian Revolution and World War I. A Pennsylvania case that might invalidate such state sedition laws was on its way to the Supreme Court as Carl was being tried, but although most courts under such circumstances would have delayed sentencing and let the defendant out on bail, Kentucky convicted Carl and sentenced him to 15 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. He served seven months of his sentence before the Supreme Court ruled that state sedition laws were superceded by the federal Smith Act.

Although Anne herself was not tried, she became a local pariah. Hate mail and threats arrived at her doorstep. "Friends and neighbors also gave her the cold shoulder, some refusing even to speak when they saw her on the street.... Even in the black community the taint of Communism had a silencing effect that was underscored by the fact that all of the defendants were white."

While Carl was incarcerated, Anne traveled the country publicizing his case and raising funds. Tired and despondent, she nonetheless found comfort in the network of people in the North (and to a lesser extent the South) who came to the couple's aid. One of these was Aubrey Williams of Montgomery, president of the Southern Conference Education Fund. SCEF was a network of activists that sought to generate Southern support for desegregation. Often red-baited himself, Williams was sympathetic to the Bradens' situation. When Carl was released from prison, he could not find work. Williams brought both Bradens onto the SCEF staff. Carl became a traveling organizer and Anne editor of its newsletter, the Southern Patriot. SCEF remained their home for 15 years. At one point Ella Baker was also on its staff.

In 1958, the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in Atlanta on "Communist Party propaganda activities in the South" and subpoenaed the Bradens to testify. After Carl refused to answer questions he was convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in jail. This time he served the full sentence while Anne campaigned for clemency.

Although the Bradens were ardent supporters of the civil rights movement that consumed the South, they remained on its edges. Fear of red-baiting caused most civil rights leaders to keep them at arm's length. Carl died in 1975, but Anne lived to see her worked vindicated with a variety of honors in the 1990s.

Unlike the Bradens, Baker was never accused of being a Communist. She met and argued with Communists in New York, but was "fairly promiscuous in her political associations," according to Ransby. However, she had "a curious and ambivalent relationship to the communist question," cooperating with the NAACP when it purged Communists in the 1950s. Baker was far too attracted to ideas of local democracy and decentralized decision- making to be politically compatible with the Communist Party. Nonetheless, like the Bradens, she recognized that civil liberties were crucial to civil rights. If some views could be suppressed as subversive, any views could be suppressed.

Neither Anne Braden nor Ella Baker had a gender agenda, but their biographers do. Ransby argues that "Baker offered an alternative image of womanhood that many young women had not previously encountered." She describes her as "authoritative yet unassuming, self-confident and assertive... comforting, nurturing...[yet with] nothing maternal about her." Although interested in others, she was silent about her own personal life. Almost everyone thought "Miss Baker" was a spinster. In fact she was married for 20 years, although her husband (who kept his own name) appears to have been more of a roommate than a spouse. Baker also raised her niece from age 9 to 19, when her sister could not do so.

Anne Braden's family life was more conventional, but still a departure from the norm. Her life and work were so intertwined with Carl's that people saw them as a single entity, "Anne and Carl." They shared the care and rearing of their three children, and they shared jobs at a time when the sexual division of labor was taken for granted, even by radicals. While Anne did more of the family work and Carl more of the traveling, their marriage was far more egalitarian than those of their friends, let alone their neighbors in Louisville.

Baker did not use her gender to push her agenda; she worked around it. It was a handicap to be a woman in world where authority was assumed to be male. She didn't ignore women, but usually worked as a woman in a man's world, where she was always marginal.

Anne Braden used her socially acceptable status as a married woman and mother to advance her causes. She organized a women's auxiliary to a labor union, joined a white women's delegation to protest the execution of a black man in Mississippi, and worked with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom against militarism and with Women for Peace to end nuclear testing. Fosl quotes her views: "I felt, and still feel, that women--if they don't suppress it--have a kind of compassion that the world needs, a caring-for-others component that some would call a maternal instinct." It was long after the women's liberation movement took hold that Braden realized what she had missed because of her lack of a feminist perspective. Because she had not felt burdened, put down or ignored and had such a companionate marriage, it took a while for her to understand that not all women were so lucky. She expanded both her views and her work, but her priority was always racial justice.

Ransby and Fosl have written significant biographies of significant women. They show what strong, dedicated women could do for social change during decades when women weren't supposed to do anything but support their husbands and care for their children. They also highlight the difficult environment in which both women worked, where challenges to the status quo, especially the racial status quo, were attacked as foreign threats. Thus, these books not only teach us about the past but warn us about a possible future.


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