As remembered by Paul Murray
April 4, 2023
Civil Rights Activist and Social Scientist
Gladys Ann "Anna" Holden, civil rights activist with the Congress of Racial Equality, social scientist and author, and environmental justice activist with the Sierra Club, died on March 29, 2023. She was 94 years old.
Born and raised in Ocala, Florida, Anna enrolled at the Florida State College for Women in 1946. The following year the college was renamed Florida State University (FSU). Anna developed an interest in race relations from courses she took in her sociology major. "We had a very liberal Sociology Department at Florida State," she told an interviewer. "The teachers I had, they were southern, but they were educated people." Anna graduated from FSU with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1950. She then entered graduate school at the University of North Carolina where she studied sociology and anthropology with Professor Guion "Guy" Johnson, known for his efforts to improve race relations in the South. Professor Johnson served on the board of directors of the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a coalition of liberal Christian ministers, lawyers, and newspaper editors dedicated to social reform and economic development in the southern states. He recommended Anna for a job with the SRC where she worked from 1951 to 1955. Her responsibilities as a research assistant included keeping files on what was happening in the field of race relations and aiding reporters seeking background information on racial issues.
In 1956, Anna moved to Nashville, where she held research and teaching positions at Fisk University, a historically Black institution. "I was ready for a change," Anna stated years later. She wanted to get "a little more involved in a more overt way" in working for racial justice. At Fisk she taught research skills to undergraduate students and conducted interviews in numerous studies, many of them focused on school desegregation. "They needed white interviewers," she remembered. "I would always get to interview the white people." Anna was one of the few white members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the South and soon became the "prime mover" of Nashville's interracial CORE chapter, its first affiliate in a southern state. When Nashville began court ordered desegregation of its public schools in 1957, she and other CORE members assisted Black parents whose children would be entering first grade in newly desegregated schools that fall. She later drew on her experiences during this crisis to prepare a pamphlet titled "A First Step Toward School Integration" with a forward by Martin Luther King, Jr. Her account described CORE's actions in support of school desegregation in Nashville and contained a list of ten specific steps that residents of other communities could take to facilitate school integration. National distribution of this publication and an earlier study of integration in Clinton, Tennessee, established Holden's status as an authority on the topic of school desegregation. When the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference held a workshop on Christian Nonviolence, Anna spoke on a panel the included Reverends James Lawson and Glenn Smiley.
Anna left Nashville to enroll in graduate school at the University of Michigan where she also was employed as a research assistant. She became a leader in the Ann Arbor CORE chapter during sympathy demonstrations in support of the student sit-in movement in the South. She also was secretary of CORE's national board. After the sit-ins died down, CORE members joined with African American community leaders, creating the Ann Arbor Fair Housing Association to focus on housing discrimination. They targeted the Pittsfield Village apartment complex with picketing during the winter and spring of 1962. They also pressured the Ann Arbor city council to adopt a fair housing ordinance. The demonstrations continued until August 1962 when the Pittsfield Village management announced adoption of a nondiscrimination policy. In September 1963 Ann Arbor became the first Michigan community to adopt a fair housing ordinance.
Anna left Ann Arbor in 1963 and moved to Washington, D.C., where she held several research positions. She first worked as a research assistant for Hylan Lewis, a Black sociologist, who directed a major study of urban poverty. She next worked as a research assistant with the Equal Educational Opportunity Program of the U.S. Office of Education. During this time, she continued her civil rights activism as chair of Washington CORE's housing committee. In June 1968, Anna went to work for the United States Civil Rights Commission conducting a study of racial integration in small and medium-sized school districts. Three months later, the Center for Urban Education in New York took over this project: Anna became its chief investigator. The study collected accounts of desegregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, Providence, Rhode Island, and Sacramento, California. It was published in 1974 by Agathon Press as The Bus Stops Here.
When the desegregation study was complete, Anna returned to Michigan where she took a position as a senior manpower planner in the office of the mayor of Detroit. This job involved assisting unemployed workers to learn new skills and find employment in other fields. During her years in the Detroit area Anna became increasingly involved in working for environmental justice. Anna was chair of a coalition of organizations that worked for three years to close the incinerator at Henry Ford Hospital, located in the mostly Black Virginia Park neighborhood. This incinerator burned 600 million pounds of solid and medical waste annually. In 1999, Anna helped raise public awareness of health and environmental issues associated with incineration by publishing two articles about the campaign to close the incinerator. In February 2002, the Henry Ford Health System announced that it would shut down the incinerator, a huge victory for environmental and community groups. Eventually, all 159 medical waste incinerators operating in Michigan closed.
Thousands of Americans participated in the modern civil rights movement. Some attended a rally or joined a single protest. Others worked for months or a couple of years. Few civil rights activists can match Anna Holden's record of more than sixty years dedicated to the struggle for social justice.