There is something about Whitesburg, in far Eastern Kentucky, that encourages activism. So I was happy to go there in early June to watch a new documentary about Anne Braden and her role in the Civil Rights Movement.
On a Saturday in early June, I headed over to Whitesburg, Kentucky, for a couple of events. There was Seedtime on the Cumberland, the annual mountain music, local arts and crafts show.
And I wanted to see the documentary film Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, made by Mimi Pickering and Anne Lewis. Mimi and Anne work out of Appalshop, which began in 1969 as an economic development project of the War on Poverty.
The minute I descended deep between the steep mountains into Eastern Kentucky, I felt like I was home.
The Whitesburg scene was one familiar to me. I come from the remote mountains of West Virginia and so I love the aura of eastern Kentucky and Whitesburg in particular.
I love the dirty smell of coal. I love the people there who are comfortable in their skin as coal miners and mountain folk — people who embrace their Appalachian heritage and work hard to preserve it.
But what really stands out to me about Whitesburg, Kentucky, is the air of activism there — people who care enough about others to do something. The impact from the activists who gather there has been heard around the world, from the newspaper in town, The Mountain Eagle (It Screams!) and from Appalshop, which has produced films, books, concerts, records and hosts a wonderful radio station, WMMT.
Whitesburg proves you can make a difference from a small rural coal-mining community, and modern technology has made it easier and faster proving you don’t need office space in a high rise or a fleet of staff to get out the message.
Over the years activists have come and gone from the small town of Whitesburg, but Mimi Pickering chose to hang around making Whitesburg her home. Anne Lewis lives in Texas now, but she has continued to work with Appalshop.
Mimi Pickering and Anne Lewis are best known for their roles behind the camera and in the editing room producing powerful documentaries to address word wide problems and social injustices. Their documentary film Anne Braden: Southern Patriot is one of those films.
First, here’s a little background on Anne Braden, as described by Pickering and Lewis. She was born on July 28, 1924, in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in rigidly segregated Anniston, Alabama. Braden grew up in a white middle-class family that accepted southern racial mores. Braden was bothered by racial segregation from the time she only 5 or 6 years old but never questioned it until her college years at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia.
She worked as a newspaper journalist in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. She returned to Kentucky as a young adult and began writing for the Louisville Times newspaper. There, she met and, in 1948, married fellow newspaperman Carl Braden, a left-wing trade unionist. She became a supporter and organizer of the civil rights movement at a time when it was unpopular among southern whites. She died in 2006.
I watched the movie and when I got home, I wrote Mimi Pickering, one of the film-makers:
I’m so glad I came to Whitesburg to see the Anne Braden film. I don’t know about others in the audience, but I cried while watching some of the scenes because of the brutality of beatings and total disrespect shown African-Americans before and during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. I cried because I knew this was real and happened in America and that it’s still not over.
The fact that she was born and raised in the Deep South makes actions of this woman even more remarkable. You know in Appalachia, (I’m not that familiar with many traits outside the region), people are always saying, “He was called to preach or called into the ministry by God.” If that is true, it seems folks may be called to other fields of service and Anne was called to work for equal justice.
I grew up on a farm in a remote part of West Virginia. I didn’t see an African-American until I was at least 6 or 7 years old when my dad took us to Charleston. We were crossing railroad tracks and a group of African-Americans were waiting there. There were little children in the group.
We stared at them but didn’t say anything. I remember my dad saying, “Everybody is the same. We are all equal.” That stayed with me.
I have to admit I’ve barely looked beyond Martin Luther King for a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. I knew he couldn’t do all that was accomplished alone but I had no idea one woman, Anne Braden with her husband, Carl, were so important to this movement. Both risked their lives in the endeavor to gain equality for a group of people they owed nothing, except they were human beings, too.
When Anne spoke at rallies or talked to organizer, what she said about not being able to organize blacks because she was not black but she could organize white people made so much sense and put her in a position that made her equal. So brilliant and so right.
I don’t know if we have anyone of Anne Braden’s caliber during this time in our history. I think people go out and look for causes, something they can get involved in to make an impact but Anne was different.
She was born with this gift of seeing people, all people, as equal. She knew at a very young age she was meant to work tirelessly towards achieving equality and wanting no glory or accolades in return.
The film is wonderful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and a reminder of times, places, people and events we should never forget.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia writers and frequent Yonder correspondent.