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September's Book
The Wall Between
by Anne Braden

Bill Goodman, bookclub@ket host, interviewed author and civil rights activist Anne Braden at the Braden Center in Louisville on August 25, 2000.

Bill:
First of all, let me say thanks for sitting down with us for a few minutes.

Anne:
I'm glad to have a chance to sit down.

Bill:
Let me ask you, what has been the reaction of people who have read the republication of The Wall Between that didn't know you, that didn't know the story when it first occurred?

Anne:
Well, that's interesting because I have heard from a number of people, not just people in Louisville. It's a little bit different -- this is sort of the Louisville story; they are bound to look at it from the viewpoint of Louisville -- but people in other places, too, that I have heard from, that have written or [I've] run into, have been sort of bowled over in amazement at the story in the original book. This thing that happened in 1954-57, it just sounds unbelievable to them. And I guess it's a little unbelievable to me, too, as I look back on it. And this in a way has defeated my purpose in wanting the book reissued.

See, the book was out of print for years, and several different university presses and people were interested in redoing it, and I said, "Well, I can't do it until I write a new introduction or an epilogue." I didn't have time; I kept putting it off. [Then] I finally did. But the main reason I wanted to do it was that it gave me a chance to say what I think is happening in the country in the last 50 years. Plus I have this passion, and I did about the original book, too, to convince more white people of the importance of this issue of race -- or white supremacy, which I think is a better term than racism, more descriptive. I think they are convincible. I think people can change. I certainly have changed; [and] I know so many people that have. So I'm sort of a crusader, you see, on that, and that is why I really wrote the book in the first place: I was trying to do that. I think that element is in the end of the first part of it. I don't know who has noticed it. The person at University of Tennessee Press who wrote the blurb for the back of the book got it. I was real pleased about that. But I don't know that it has gotten across to anybody much except that guy at UT.

I don't think my life is that important to write about; I really don't. I mean that's not false modesty. I just don't. But I do think the experience of white Southerners of my generation, you know ... [I was] born in the '20s, grew up in the '30s in the deep South in Alabama. The experience of white Southerners of my generation who became involved in social justice movements and the movement for change -- we had to go through some real changes. We had to turn ourselves inside out and upside down to deal with the coming to terms with the fact that our society was wrong and that it had to change. It had to be. And I have said it so often -- I say it in the book -- I think that this is a painful process, but it's not destructive. I think what we went through, this whole country needs to go through, because I don't think we have ever done it. I think the country has picked around the edges; I think I say that in the book. This [country] has got to turn its policies upside down and inside out. So I think there is a message I want to get across to people, but I'm not sure they are getting it. I think they are fascinated by the story, and I am glad they are reading the book and I'd like for more people to read it, but that's the kind of reaction I'm getting.

When I have been asked to talk about this case (and I think I say in the epilogue, it's gotten kind of tiresome to tell this story, and I have tried to learn to condense it down), I say, "OK, I will take a few minutes" [when] somebody asks me about it if I am speaking somewhere -- when you tell it, people are just utterly amazed. When I tell them about our indictment for sedition, for example, and that after all this stuff happened about the house and that the prosecutor has this theory that this whole purchase and resale and bombing of the house was a plot, a Communist plot, to stir up trouble between the races, overthrow the government of Kentucky and the United States -- that is what he said -- every time I say that to an audience, they laugh. They burst out in laughter. I say, "You may think it's funny now. But it wasn't funny then." I mean people took it seriously, you know.

Bill:
What is the difference in the reaction that you get today compared to the reaction that you got when the book first came out? Was it widely read, do you remember?

Anne:
It was pretty widely read for a book that was not a mainline publisher book.

By the way, the first edition had an interesting odyssey before it ever got published. In fact, that was written partly to get it out of my system; it was something I had to do. Well I'm a natural writer. I don't think I'm a great writer or anything, but I put words on paper easily. It's just something I've always done. But I think I wanted, and it was sort of a passion I had, I wanted to try to understand why this happened. And then, of course, because I was trying to understand what made the people that opposed us do what they did, then I had to figure out what made me do what I did. So to that extent it became autobiographical. It really isn't an autobiography but to that extent [it was]. I wrote it, and then some friends read it, and they really encouraged me to try to get it published by what I call a main -- one of the big publishers. By that time Carl and I had met people around the country, and they introduced me to this agent in New York who got very interested in the book and thought she could sell a publisher on it. At one time after another the first readers liked it, but the further up it got, the colder the feet got, and finally Monthly Review Press published it. They were a left-wing social [organization]. It was a publication started in the early '50s.

Bill:
I wanted to ask you about that because we talked about that.

Anne:
Monthly Review is a magazine; still exists. I don't get it now, and I really should.

Bill:
Really?

Anne:
Oh yeah. And it was started by Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy in the early '50s as a social independent, socialist magazine. They went into the book-publishing business purely as a sideline, with the specific purpose of publishing books that were considered too hot to handle by other publishers. The first one was a book called The Hidden History of the Korean War by I.F. Stone. You may have heard of it.

Bill:
Oh, I know I.F. Stone well.

Anne:
Well, he had written this hidden history [and] couldn't get it published anywhere. And Leo Huberman ran into him, looking dejected, in Central Park one day, and he said, "Well, we will publish it." And they started this and then a guy who became a good friend of mine and really named my book [named] Harvey O'Connor [got involved]. He had made a career, I mean he was considered an expert, on the study of great fortunes. He wrote a book [on] The Mellons and the Guggenheims back in the '40s that were front page on the New York Times book review. When he wrote about the Rockefellers and the empire of oil, I mean just had another family no different from those other families, in the early '50s or late '40s, he couldn't get it published anywhere, and he had been called before Joe McCarthy. He was actually -- Harvey was so funny; he was one of the first people who really made fun of McCarthy. He wrote articles for Nation that said "why I told Joe to go blow." People weren't just making fun of McCarthy then.

Bill:
[laughs]

Anne:
But he couldn't get it published, so they published his book. So that's why they were set up. Now they publish mostly ... my book was really not the kind of thing they usually published, because most of them were economic and political sorts of things, and mine was, well, what it was. So they said, "Look, we will publish it; nobody is going to publish this book." And in a way it was kind of good, because I think a big publisher will sometimes take a book by somebody that is not known, not going to be a best-seller, and just publish, do a few, and then it's forgotten. Whereas they really pushed it, and they really got the word out through networks and through organizations, and a lot of people I wanted to reach who were not the man and woman on the street (that I should want to reach, too) but especially white people who are somewhat concerned about social issues but I didn't feel like were doing well on this question. So it really got around a lot. And then there was a kind of a left-wing paperback company called Prometheus Books that did a paperback of it, and it sold even more. Then they became collector's items. I don't even have a hardcover now myself, but I do have a paperback. I think Cait Fosl has one. So it got out of print for a long time.

But I think your original question was the difference in reaction or did it get around. So I think it did. I was going to tell you the odyssey of the book, though. You've probably heard of Jessica Mitford.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Anne:
Who wrote The American Way of Death.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Anne:
You know she became famous. She had written some other books. Deca Truhavt was a good friend of mine. And so she was real interested in my book, and she wrote an article -- I have it in my files somewhere -- for one of the big papers in San Francisco ... I forget what the name of it is ... on what had happened: the story of my book trying to get published as an example of how the publishing world was so closed to controversy in that period.

You know [The Wall Between] was a runner-up for the National Book Award that year?

Bill:
Yes.

Anne:
And the reason for that was that there was a guy, and I keep trying to remember his name. He was editor of Scientific American so it's easy to find out. I never met him until later, but he was on the judges' panel.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Anne:
The National Book Award wasn't quite as prestigious as it became later. But he was on that, and he was a friend of Monthly Review people, and he read my book and got really devoted to it. So he was determined to get the National Book Award for my book, and he fought that. Leo Huberman took me to see him once when I was in New York. He told me about the battles he had with the committee. And it really wasn't so much the subject matter of my book, it was me, because I was supposed to be a Communist, and they couldn't give a book award to somebody like that.

Bill:
Oh.

Anne:
So.

Bill:
That was the reason?

Anne:
Yeah.

Bill:
One of the questions that came up in the discussion that we had about the book was, why were you so kind to your detractors and your enemies? How could you have this demeanor of someone who, even in the face of so much adversity, really cared about even the people who were persecuting and prosecuting you?

Anne:
Well, you know, I think I can answer that, because the same question came up ... before the reissue of my book came out. Some Sunday-morning discussion class out at one of the East-End churches asked me to come out there and talk to their class about my experiences, and so I did. And a woman asked me later, and it's sort of the same question, but she put it in theological terms. She said, "What's hard for me to see is how do you forgive?" Christians are supposed to forgive, and she is saying you are supposed to forgive. I said I never thought of it as forgiving. I said that I knew that I could have so easily been in exactly the same place that my adversaries were. I really could, and I think I say that in the chapter about Scott Hamilton, the prosecutor. I could have been on his side; I could have been just like him. I could have met him at a dinner party and thought about these strange Bradens like he thought. I could have so easily.

I think that so much that happens to you in life is chance. I consider myself very lucky. I think that the direction that your life goes in has a lot to do with who you meet at a certain time, who asks certain questions at a certain time; and I was just plain lucky, from my viewpoint. Maybe some people don't see it that way. But to break out of what I consider to be prisons ... I think life builds prisons around people. They are prisons, and some people have broken out of them. But I always say, I was in a prison because I was born white in a racist society. I was in a prison because I was born privileged in a classist society. (I didn't have the prison of great wealth because my family was not wealthy -- we never wanted, [but] we weren't wealthy -- and I didn't really have the prison of great power. My family was not powerful in a political sense, although they moved with people who were.) But those are prisons, I think, and everybody has some prisons, and I think you have to break out of those prisons to become a part of the human race. I just think I was lucky that I was able to do that. So the point is, in terms of your trying to understand the people on the other side: I could have been on that side.

Bill:
Was it lucky or [just by] chance that you developed this sensitivity that you had? Was it the, more or less, the epiphany that you had in Birmingham, when you made reference to, "Oh, it was just another 'colored' murder"?

Anne:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Was it that statement that really turned you around? Was it something that happened in your childhood; was it listening to your parents? Where did it happen that you developed this sensitivity to other human beings in the human race that brought you to this effort and this struggle that you carry on today?

Anne:
You know, I really don't know. I wonder if anybody can answer that question about themselves. I think I would if I could. I think, [for instance] the incident in Birmingham -- that was certainly a vivid sort of thing in my life, because I realized that this thing was destroying me, too. You know, at that moment I realized that. I think that because it is in the book and people have quoted it and that kind of thing, that it might seem like, well, that was the turning point. But really, when I wrote this book, the original book, I hadn't done a lot of thinking about how did I get to where I am. Here I was, 30 years old, getting ready to spend maybe 15 or 20 years in prison. So I had to kind of look back at my life, but I hadn't stopped to look. Who does at that age? I bet you don't. You know, you don't usually sit down and figure out, well, how did I get here psychologically or spiritually and so forth. So I had to do that at that age, which is kind of good to have to do at that stage of your life, I think. I had to really sort of dig into my unconscious to pull out some of the incidents I did put in the book. And then once they were on paper, they become real. And of course I didn't read it for years, but then I remember them [now] because I remembered them then. There are probably others if I'd dug deeper into my unconscious. So I don't think it was any one thing. I think that I could have probably, if I just sat and thought about it, [thought] of other particular things that happened that made me know something was wrong.

See, it's just depressing. I knew something was wrong, but I think -- and I don't know whether I say this in the book; I don't guess I do, [but] I've said it a lot of places -- back in the '60s, when a lot of young whites began coming into civil rights activity ...

(And, of course, there were more than people realize in my generation, too. I was 10 years older than the young people, but that seemed like a big difference then. And then there were a lot in the generation before me, 10 years older than me. Whites, too, because the white South has never been solid; there have always been the dissenters, you know. And that story -- not enough of it has been told yet.)

But in the '60s, there were a lot of young whites coming into things, and one of the favorite pastimes late at night, or till people got out of jail or they were sitting around talking -- whites you know, and it wasn't private; blacks might be there, too -- they would say, "What made you change?" to each other. I don't remember, now, maybe, I never remember anybody who could give you one moment in time when they suddenly saw a blinding light. I think to most people, just like it was with me, it was something that as we looked back, we thought we always knew something was wrong, and I think I did put that [in the book]. I have used the image so much, and I think it's really telling: It's like photography. You put a piece of -- well, I don't know how photography is now, but you used to put a piece of developing paper in the developing fluid or the print fluid, and there comes the picture. It's been there all the time. So it was just something you knew was wrong; you just knew it was wrong. And I think that maybe one advantage that my generation had that maybe people don't today is that it was so glaring once you knew it. You could hardly avoid it. You had to deal with it once you could see it at all because of the way that society was structured then, and the whole rigid segregation and all that kind of thing. Maybe it's not quite as easy for people now. All the manifestations of white supremacy are so much more subtle, but they are just as deadly, maybe more deadly in some ways.

Bill:
Well, that's sort of the final question, is how --

Anne:
But I think that it was just something that you couldn't avoid; and when people tried to avoid it, they turned inward on themselves. It came out in other ways. I used to go home, and I bet I hadn't had time to get a cup of coffee until my mother would be telling me who had committed suicide, who had embezzled funds from the bank and run off with somebody else's wife. Who was doing this, that, or the other. Who was in the mental institution. It's just amazing and [it was] because people didn't deal with this, I think.

Bill:
How far have we come as a society dealing in race relations, and how far do we have to go?

Anne:
Oh boy. That's a tough question, isn't it? Well, you know, I think I say some of this in the epilogue: that there certainly have been dramatic changes. Anybody who says -- and I run into some that say -- the civil rights movement didn't accomplish anything, they just don't know how things were before. And nobody would want to go back to what it was before, where it was worth your life to try to go vote. Blacks and whites couldn't even play checkers together in Birmingham. Here you couldn't go in a store on Fourth Street. Nobody would want to go back. So it accomplished something. I think that what the movement of the '50s and '60s and into the '70s -- because I think there has been a backward push since then -- accomplished one thing else in the South besides breaking down legalized segregation and winning the right to vote, which is important. Oh, that wasn't all it was about, and [that] doesn't always solve everything, but the most important thing that was accomplished was that people won the right to organize. The South was a literal police state and after that movement, it's not a police state now. There are some people that want to be repressive. You may get in trouble for doing something controversial, but it was a literal police state then. It's not anymore, and I tell people, young [people who say] oh, it's such a hard time to organize, I say, "What are you talking about? I mean, you got the right to organize!" You had people that were organizing when there wasn't even any right to organize. They were risking their lives. And sometimes you do that now, but I think there have been great changes.

I guess the problem is that this is still a white supremacist society in the sense that it's so unconscious. It's run by white people for the benefit of white people. See, that's the way I define racism. It's the assumption, in this country at least, it's the assumption that everything should be run by whites for the benefit of whites. And if you look at our history, that kind of explains a lot of it. I think the people who came over here and settled from Europe really thought they had a right to do this. That this was theirs and [they had the right] to kill off the people.

Bill:
Do you think that mainstream white America still believes that?

Anne:
I think they may not say that, but everything in our institutions is that way. It is run for their benefit. You know, I have an African-American friend -- actually he's dead now, he died prematurely -- who used to do workshops on racism a lot for white people. And he used to say he was really good, too; he could get through to people, and he didn't mind talking to white people. A lot of black people don't even want to waste their time. You know, why waste your time on these people? [But] he'd do it. He said everything in this country was stolen. It was stolen first from the Native Americans and then the Africans that were brought over here as slaves; it was all stolen. And he was talking about guilt because, as I say, I think guilt is an unproductive emotion. I think you do something because you believe in something, not because you feel guilty. But he said, "Now, if my car gets stolen and I come in and you are standing there and I say my car was stolen and you didn't steal it, you are not going to feel guilty. But if somebody gave you the keys to that car and you drove it, knowing it was stolen, you are guilty." And he said a lot of white people in this country are driving that stolen car for all it's worth. People don't realize that the minute you step out of your door in the morning, life is different for you from what it is for a black person. I mean, people aren't going to follow you around the store to see if you are shoplifting, unless you look pretty bedraggled. They are probably not anyway. They are not going to see you driving down the street and think that you're a drug dealer. It is everywhere.

But I think the encouraging thing is -- I don't want to paint too dismal a picture, because, and I think I say this in the epilogue of the book, the thing that encourages me is -- there are more white people today who want to do something about this. I run into them all the time. And I think the problem is often they don't know what to do. Our communities are separate. They live separate. They don't know what is happening in the black community, but they want to do something, and I think the job of people like me and groups I work with is to try to link what needs to be done up with the people that want to do something.

But you know, it's interesting: If you read Julian Bond's introduction to my book, he says almost the opposite of that. Julian wrote that introduction back in the early '90s when UT Press was first going to publish this book. I hadn't gotten around to writing the epilogue, and they sent it to him to see if he wanted to revise it. I told this guy who was writing the blurb for the book that he's saying just the opposite of what I said, because he says in there somewhere that the problem today is not Wades who want a house, but Bradens who will help them get it; that the struggle for -- I don't know whether he says civil rights or justice; I can't remember what word he uses -- today is the segregated concern almost entirely, the segregated concern of blacks alone. So I called Julian, and I said, "Julian, I don't want to write your introduction for you, but is there anything you want to change in that?" because I thought maybe it would look a little different now from the early '90s. And he said, "No, I think it's all right; just go with it." And I thought that's interesting, and in fact I don't know whether it's on the back of the book. He quotes that part, "What is missing today is not Wades who want a home but Bradens who will help them fight for one." Today he says ending racism is largely the segregated concern of the blacks alone.

Well, I was saying just the opposite: that there are more whites that want to do something. And I said to the guy who was writing the blurb on the book -- they had let me look at it because of what they wrote first made me sound much more respectable than I am -- I liked him getting the point of my epilogue, but I said, "Should we point out what I said?" No, I shouldn't be arguing with Julian on the cover of this book. But I think it is interesting because Julian is black and I am white, and you know, that must be the way it looks to him: that there are just no whites that are really interested. Whereas I see a lot of whites who are OK. I just think there are so many things that have to change. And I think one problem is that when people do begin to think about this problem today, it seems so overwhelming that you just don't do anything. And my perspective on that is that it is very important to do something specific. You don't have to solve the whole problem, but I say that white people need to be visible about opposing specific racist practices, not sitting around talking about racism in general. Now that's OK: I'm all for workshops, and I think we need to understand our history and understand the history of racism and how this country was built on it. See, it's not a wart on the body of politics that the original wealth in this country came from slavery and the slave trade. It's woven into the institutions. I think we need to understand that, and right now in Louisville, where we have had such racial divisions, this city is more racially polarized now than I have ever known it.

Over 50 years ago when I came here, it was legally segregated. [But now] I mean it's poles apart in where people are in their thinking. Whites in the East End have no idea what happened in the West End on Derby weekend, or why people were so upset about it. I mean there is just no communication. And some of us keep trying to build those bridges where there can be some communication. We have got a lot of people now who are having more dialogue: "Let's communicate." That's OK, but it's not going to change anything. And I think it's very hard for white people to see that if personal relationships are important ... You know, I think people can change their thinking because of that. But if you are black and I am white, we can get to be real good friends -- we can love each other -- but it's not going to change one iota of how most of the black people have to live in this country. And I am not talking about the minority. There are some who have gotten ahead, and they have because of the struggle, but I say in the epilogue of the book that the great numbers of African Americans (and every statistical table shows it; you don't have to see it with your own eyes) are worse off economically relative to the society now than they were in 1969. The tables show that. Things are supposed to be getting a little better now. When unemployment [goes] up or down one percentage point, everybody gets excited. But it's really pretty appalling. That's when it gets overwhelming. So what you have to do, I think, is that you do something about something specific, and you figure some other people are going to do something else specific, and out of that we are going to begin to change the atmosphere to where more people see that in order to have a good society for anybody, we have to open these doors and change those policies that are wrong.

When we get into arguments with public officials -- we are arguing with some people right now at an institution here where we are trying to deal with a thing of contracts for African Americans -- whites think that you're saying they're prejudiced. This one woman, I couldn't believe it, she actually said she knew she wasn't prejudiced, she actually said, "Some of my best friends are black." I couldn't believe it. So it's almost funny. But we try to explain that we are not saying you are personally prejudiced. It's built into the institutions, and you decide whether you are going to perpetuate that or you are going to stand against it. You make that decision.

Bill:
Anne Braden, thanks very much for sitting down with us.

Anne:
And preaching a sermon, right? I'm sorry.

Bill:
The struggle continues.

Anne:
Yeah, right. Sure does.

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