Born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in rigidly segregated Anniston, Alabama, Braden grew up in a white, middle-class family that accepted southern racial mores wholeheartedly. A devout Episcopalian, Braden was bothered by racial segregation, but never questioned it until her college years at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. After working on newspapers in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, she returned to Kentucky as a young adult to write for The Louisville Times. She became a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when it was unpopular among southern whites.
In 1948, Anne and Carl Braden immersed themselves in Henry Wallace's run on the Progressive Party for the presidency. Soon after Wallace's defeat, they left mainstream journalism to apply their writing talents to the interracial left wing of the labor movement through the FE (Farm and Equipment Workers) Union, representing Louisville's International Harvester employees.
Even as the postwar labor movement splintered and grew less militant, civil rights causes heated up. In 1950, Anne Braden spearheaded a hospital desegregation drive in Kentucky. She endured her first arrest in 1951 when she led a delegation of southern white women organized by the Civil Rights Congress to Mississippi to protest the execution of Willie McGee, an African American man convicted of the rape of a white woman, Willette Hawkins.
In 1954, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, an African-American couple who knew the Bradens through association, approached them with a proposal that would drastically alter all lives involved. Like many other Americans after World War II, the Wades wanted to buy a house in a suburban neighborhood. Because of Jim Crow housing practices, the Wades had been unsuccessful for months in their quest to purchase a home on their own. The Bradens, who never wavered in their support for African American civil rights, agreed to purchase the home for the Wades. On May 15, 1954, Wade and his wife spent their first night in their new home in the Louisville suburb of Shively, Kentucky. Upon discovering that black people had moved in, white neighbors burned a cross in front of the house, shot out windows, and condemned the Bradens for buying it on the Wades' behalf. The Wades moved in two days before the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark condemnation of public schools' racial segregation policy in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS. Six weeks later, amid constant community tensions, the Wades' new house was dynamited one evening while they were out. While Vernon Bown (an associate of the Wades and the Bradens) was indicted for the bombing, the actual bombers were never sought nor brought to trial.
McCarthyism affected the ordeal. Instead of addressing the segregationists' violence, the investigators alleged that the Bradens and others helping the Wades were affiliated with the Communist Party, and made that the main subject of concern. White supremacists who were pro-segregation at the time charged that these alleged Communists had engineered the bombing to provide a cause célèbre and fund-raising opportunity, but this was never proven. Nonetheless, on October 1954, Anne and Carl Braden and five other whites were charged with sedition. After a sensationalized trial, Carl Braden—the perceived ringleader—was convicted of sedition and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. As Anne and the other defendants awaited a similar fate, Carl served eight months, but got out on $40,000 bond after a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Pennsylvania v. Nelson in 1956) invalidated state sedition laws (Steven Nelson had been arrested under the Pennsylvania Sedition Law but the federal Smith Act superseded it). All charges were dropped against Braden, but the Wades moved back to Louisville.
Blacklisted from local employment, the Bradens took jobs as field organizers for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a small, New Orleans-based civil rights organization whose mission was to solicit white southern support for the beleaguered southern civil rights movement. In the years before southern civil rights violations made national news, the Bradens developed their own media, both through SCEF's monthly newspaper, The Southern Patriot, and through numerous pamphlets and press releases publicizing major civil rights campaigns.
In 1958 Anne wrote The Wall Between, a memoir of their sedition case. One of the few books of its time to unpack the psychology of white southern racism from within, it was praised by human rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, and became a runner-up for the National Book Award. Although their radical politics marginalized them among many of their own generation, the Bradens were reclaimed by young student activists of the 1960s. They were among the civil rights movement's most dedicated white allies.
In 1977, Braden became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.
From the 1980s into the 2000s, Braden wrote for Southern Exposure, Southern Changes, and the National Guardian and Fellowship.
No longer a pariah, Anne received the American Civil Liberties Union's first Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty in 1990 for her contributions to civil liberties. As she aged, her activism focused more on Louisville, where she remained a leader in anti-racist drives and taught social justice history classes at University of Louisville and Northern Kentucky University. In 2005, she joined Louisville antiwar demonstrations in a wheelchair. She cofounded the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and continued involvement in local activism addressing modern concerns of police brutality, environmental racism, and LGBT rights.
After her death, The Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research was established at the University of Louisville in November 2006 and was officially opened on April 4, 2007. The institute focuses on social justice globally, but concentrates on the southern United States and the Louisville area. Over her nearly six decades of activism, her life touched almost every modern U.S. social movement, and her message to them all was the centrality of racism and the responsibility of whites to combat it.
During her time at The Louisville Times in Kentucky, she met and married fellow newspaperman Carl Braden, a left-wing trade unionist in 1948. The Bradens had three children: James, born in 1951, a 1972 Rhodes Scholar, and a 1980 graduate of Harvard Law School (where he preceded Barack Obama as editor of the Harvard Law Review), has lived and practiced law for over 25 years in San Francisco, California. Elizabeth, born in 1960, has worked as a teacher in many countries around the world, serving as of 2006 in that capacity in rural Ethiopia. Anita, born in 1953, died of a pulmonary disorder at age 11. While raising their children, the couple remained deeply involved in the civil rights cause and the subsequent social movements it prompted from the 1960s to the 1970s.
After Carl's death in 1975, Anne Braden remained among the nation's most outspoken white anti-racist activists. She instigated the formation of a new regional multiracial organization, the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC), which initiated battles against environmental racism. She became an instrumental voice in the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition of the 1980s and in the two Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns, as well as organizing across racial divides in the new environmental, women's, and anti-nuclear movements that sprang up in that decade.
Anne Braden died on March 6, 2006 at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. Only three days earlier, she had completed a proposal for a local activist summer camp.
The alternative hip hop group Flobots paid tribute with the song "Anne Braden" on their 2007 album Fight With Tools. The track includes several audio samples of Anne Braden (Courtesy of Dr. Vincent Harding and the Veterans of Hope Project), describing her life and thoughts on race in her own words.