Ben Smith and Anne Braden in the Wade Wayback Machine

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            Brooklyn          Thanks to my darling daughter, over the last year or so, before I make a long drive whether to Texas, Arkansas, or Georgia, I make sure I’ve got some audiobooks handy.  There’s Audible, the Amazon product, and then there’s Libby, the free site from our public library.  I was pretty desperate, as I scrolled through the nonfiction offerings on Libby before I traveled to Arkansas recently.  I stumbled on a book about Anne Braden as a Southern subversive.  Ok, I thought.  I had some glancing contact with SCEF over ACORN’s early years.  I had either gotten or made a call to Anne at some point.  Why not?

The book presents her, as she presented herself in oral histories, as something of a small-town Southern bell.  The more I listened, the more her story reminded me of my mother, raised in an even smaller southern town, Drew, Mississippi, in Sunflower County, that she was aching to leave, just as Braden wanted out of Anniston, Alabama.  Once I started feeling like there were some intersections between their life stories, I realized they were about the same age, hardly six months difference.  Her times were also my mother’s times in the South.  Suddenly, the book had my attention.

`           Then, when the book talked about the police raid on SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, in New Orleans, where Anne and Carl Braden worked for quite a time.  They mentioned that the headquarters office in New Orleans was ransacked, and two lawyers were arrested in 1964, without naming them.  In another twist of fate, I immediately knew that one of the lawyers for SCEF had to have been Benjamin Smith.  Could it be?  I was in high school in the city then, and without knowing anything about SCEF or whatever, I knew Smith was arrested for something that had to with the civil rights, and even if I mainly followed the comics and the sports pages then, few in the city didn’t know that Jim Garrison, the district attorney, was a rabid commie hunter.  I checked after hearing this, and, confirmed that Ben Smith was arrested along with his associate, Bruce C. Waltzer.

I knew this would have to have been wrong, even though it was almost sixty years ago, and I was just a teenager.  Smith had been one of the scout masters in our troop.  On my way to Eagle, I had gotten two merit badges where he was the counselor, including Citizenship in the Country.  I knew it was a raw deal, but didn’t know the details then.  I found myself on Google trying to piece together the memories.  Smith’s practice collapsed.  His obit in the Times noted he died a dozen years later at only 48 in New York City, where he headed the National Lawyers Guild, also seen by Senator Eastland, McCarthy, and the rest as a commie front.  Along with William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy, he had been one of the lawyers for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in their challenge to the Mississippi delegation in that historic contest led by Sunflower County’s own Fannie Lou Hamer.  There’s an annual Benjamin E. Smith Award given by the Louisiana ACLU since his death in 1976.,

Is this just another case of “small world” syndrome?  Jim Dombrowski was the director of SCEF for years and earlier co-founder of the Highlander Center and central in civil rights and civil liberties fight.  He was the Braden’s boss and friend.  I remember being invited to a meeting at his house on Barracks Street in the French Quarter in 1976, when I was making the rounds of potential allies in order to open ACORN’s office in the city.

Funny how a random comment from a book selected by happenstance can end up triggering your whole personal wayback machine.