UCC minister who helped integrate Kentucky schools has died
The Rev. Theodore A. Braun, a prominent social justice advocate in the United Church of Christ, has died. He was 88.
A pastor for more than 40 years, Braun was known internationally for leading the charge against injustice wherever he went.
In 1956, during his first pastorate at Zion UCC in downtown Henderson, Ky., Braun was one of the white clergy leaders—along with close friend the Rev. C. S. Logan, a Presbyterian minister, and many African-American clergy—who galvanized the effort to challenge the White Citizens Council boycott of public schools during integration.
Braun and Logan “organized people behind the scenes and used their public profiles to unabashedly support desegregation,” wrote David Lai, a Western Kentucky University graduate student who chronicled Henderson’s unique integration story in May 2013. “In comparison to the disorder surrounding nearby cities, Henderson’s September 1956 school desegregation campaign stands out for its relative peacefulness.”
“While anti-integration forces were meeting in the Henderson County Courthouse, Ted hosted counter-meetings in the church sanctuary for those who supported integration,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the UCC and also a former pastor of Zion UCC. “For multiple weeks, a police car sat in front of the church parsonage overnight because of the multiple threats made against Ted but, in the end, he and his allies were successful.”
Under Braun’s leadership, Henderson residents defeated the public school boycott. Soon after, the story was featured on the cover of The Christian Century on Oct. 24, 1956 and Braun appeared on The Today Show on NBC. ”Christian commentators at the time looked at Henderson’s outcome as a case study for clerical intervention, hoping that its success could inspire (white) clergy elsewhere to take concrete action in support for school desegregation,” Lai noted.
“We first integrated our ministers’ group, then the public library, then the barber shops,” said Braun in a 2013 interview. “As a result, [Henderson] became the first town in the South … to defeat a powerful White Citizens Council.”
Throughout a remarkable life as a pastor and justice advocate, Braun often recounted his ministry in Henderson as one of his most memorable. After he left Kentucky, he lost a job in Pennsylvania because he boycotted barber shops that refused to cut the hair of African Americans.
As pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd UCC in Carbondale, Ill., from 1973 to 1992, Braun took his first trip to Cuba in 1979 to study the life and mission of the church there. In 1980, he started leading annual study seminar groups to Cuba, a program that lasted for more than 30 years, culminating in more than 40 trips to Cuba when it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to that country.
“I hope he was heartened by the recent opening in U.S.-Cuba relations. The advocacy and persistence of Ted and people like him surely had an effect on that,” said Hans Holznagel, a former public relations executive with the UCC, who knew Braun well.
In 1989, under his leadership, Church of the Good Shepherd UCC became one of the UCC’s earliest congregations to declare itself open and affirming of the gay and lesbian community, and Braun conducted same-gender union ceremonies at the church long before they became common.
In 1992, Ted and Donna Braun retired to UCC-related Uplands Retirement Village in Pleasant Hill, Tenn., where they helped establish a PFLAG chapter and the Shalom Center for Continuing Studies.
“Ted and Donna were not only [a] strong presence within the UCC, but they were pillars of leadership to Uplands Village residents and families,” said Richard Woodard, executive director of Uplands Village. “To say they will be sorely missed does not adequately express our community’s sense of loss. Not only did they make the world a better place, but those who lives they influenced will continue their values in various communities around the world.”
Across the UCC, Braun is perhaps best known for a now legendary publication, Balaam’s Courier, which he founded in 1975 and published daily during the denomination’s biennial national General Synod. Balaam’s Courier presented an “underground” view and commentary of topics and events in the life of the UCC, and was often a voice of dissention that prodded conversation among Synod delegates and visitors.
“To me, Ted had all the ingredients, in just the right proportion, to be the quintessential UCC pastor—personal warmth and charisma, righteous indignation in confronting injustice, and even abrasive tenacity when necessary to make change a reality,” said Guess. “Ted and I were pastors of the same congregation, albeit four decades apart, but that is how our friendship started and, later, we worked closely in our respective news rooms at Synod, he with Balaam’s Courier and me, at the time, with United Church News. I maintained a close friendship with Ted and Donna for more than 20 years, and visited them on occasion at Uplands.”
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ted Braun, but will always remember his passion for justice work. He walked among the cloud of witnesses and circle of giants in his commitment to speaking and acting prophetically,” said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries.
The son of the late T.C. and Viola Braun, Braun was born Jan. 25, 1927, in St. Louis. He graduated from UCC-related Elmhurst (Ill.) College, Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., and Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.
By his side through it all was his wife of 62 years, Donna, who died nine days after Ted, on March 4, at the age of 83. “Mom was a partner and supporter of Dad, enabling him to do these things which he wouldn’t have been able to do without her support,” said daughter Carol Wilson-Braun.
The Brauns are survived by their three daughters: Wilson-Braun, her husband Jeff, and sons Nathan and Peter of Watertown, Mass.; Rebecca Ralston and her husband Curt, of Independence, Ore.; and Deborah Braun and her spouse, Jan Bodin, of Fridley, Minn.
A memorial service for Ted and Donna Braun will be held Aug. 8 at Pleasant Hill (Tenn.) Community UCC.
Donations may be sent to: Shalom Center for Continuing Education, P.O. Box 167, Pleasant Hill, TN 38578.
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