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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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