Mrs. Ella Josephine Baker (1903-1986) speaks in Mississippi during the aftermath of the murder of three civil rights workers during the summer of 1964. She was a leading force in the Freedom Democratic Party.
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Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 - December 13, 1986) was an African American civil rights and human rights activist beginning in the 1930s. She was a behind-the-scenes activist whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the twentieth century, including: W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Early Life and Career
Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia. When she was seven, her family moved to her mother's hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. She attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduating as class valedictorian in 1927, before moving to New York City.
She had wanted to undertake graduate studies in sociology, but, as it was the Great Depression, she had to find work to support herself. She refused to teach, which at the time was one of the few professions open to black women. She instead took waitressing and other service jobs. During 1929 - 1930 she was an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News, going on to take the position of editorial assistant at the Negro National News.
In 1930 she became involved in consumer advocacy, co-founding the Young Negroes' Cooperative League, which sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. She soon became the group’s national director. She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, where she taught courses in consumer education, labor history and African history. Baker immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s.
She protested Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and supported the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants, a group of young black men wrongfully accused of rape in Alabama. She also founded the negro history club at the Harlem library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA. She befriended the future scholar and activist, John Henrik Clark and the future writer and civil rights lawyer, Pauli Murray, and many others who would become lifelong friends.
Work with the NAACP
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was hired in 1941 as a field secretary. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local campaigns. She was named director of branches in 1943, making her the highest ranking woman in the organization.
She was an outspoken woman with a strong belief in egalitarian ideals. She pushed the organization to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns on the local level.
She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization. Baker formed a network of people in the south who would go on to be important for the fight for civil rights. Whereas some organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker’s ability to treat everyone with respect helped her in her recruiting. Baker fought to make the NAACP more democratic and in tune with the needs of the people.
She tried to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front. When the opportunity arose in 1946 to return to New York City to care for her niece, she left her position with the national association, but remained a volunteer. She soon joined the New York branch of the NAACP to work on school desegregation and police brutality issues, and became its president in 1952. She resigned in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.
Work with the SCLC
In January 1957, Baker went to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed. The conference’s first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.
Baker was hired as the first staffperson for the new organization. Along with Bayard Rustin, one of her close allies, she was co-organizer of the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage which brought thousands of activists to Washington D.C. Because she was not a man or a minister, she was not seriously considered for the post of executive director, but she worked with the SCLC ministers to hire Reverend John Tilley in that capacity.
Baker worked closely with southern civil rights activists in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and was highly respected for her organizing abilities. She helped initiate voter registration campaigns and identify other local greivances.
After Tilley resigned, she remained in Atlanta for two and a half years as interim executive director of the SCLC until the post was taken up by Wyatt Tee Walker in April 1960.
Advisor to the SNCC
That same year, on the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend.
At this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. Following the conference Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and intimate relationship with SNCC. Along with Howard Zinn, Baker was one of SNCC's highly revered adult advisors. It was with Baker’s help that SNCC (along with Congress of Racial Equality) coordinated the region-wide freedom rides of 1961 and began to work closely with black sharecroppers and others throughout the South.
Ella Baker insisted that "strong people don't need strong leaders," and criticized the notion of a single charismatic leader at the helm of movements for social change. She also argued that "people under the heel," referring to the most oppressed sectors of any community, "had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get (out) from under their oppression."
She was a teacher and mentor to the young people of SNCC, highly influencing the thinking of such important figures as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Stokley Carmichael, Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who wrote a song in Baker's honor, called "Ella's Song."
Through SNCC, Baker’s ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s. Her ideas influenced the philosophy of participatory democracy put forth by Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the day. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that would form in the 60s and 70s.
Work with the SCEF
From 1962 to 1967 Baker worked on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), which aimed to help black and white people work together for social justice. In SCEF Baker worked closely with her friend, longtime white anti-racist activist, Anne Braden, who had been accused of being a communist during the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Baker viewed socialism as a more humane alternative to capitalism but she had mixed feelings about communism. Still, she became a staunch defender of Anne Braden and her husband Carl and encouraged SNCC to reject red-baiting because she viewed it as divisive and unfair. During the 1960s Baker participated in a speaking tour and co-hosted several meetings on the importance of linking civil rights and civil liberties.
In 1964 she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. She worked as the coordinator of the Washington office of the MFDP and accompanied a delegation of the MFDP to the National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1964. The group's aim was to challenge the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans to participate in party elections in the South.
When MFDP delegates challenge the pro-segregationist, all-white official delegation, a major conflict ensued. The MFDP delegation was not seated but their influence on the Democratic Party helped to elect many black leaders in Mississippi, and forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
That same year, Ella Baker returned to New York, where she continued her activism. She later collaborated with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. In 1972 she traveled the country in support of the "Free Angela" campaign demanding the release of political prisoner, Angela Davis.
She lent her voice to the Puerto Rican independence movement, spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa and allied herself with a number of women's groups, including the Third World Women's Alliance and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She remained active in the struggle for racial and economic justice and for peace and human rights until her death in 1986.
It is widely written that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King as well as other SCLC members differed in opinion and philosophy. She even once claimed that the "movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement". Another speech she made, in which she urged activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay", was widely interpreted as a denunciation of King.
Ella Baker was notoriously private person; people close to her did not know that she was married for 20 years. She left no personal diaries of herself.
American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968)
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
S. G. O’Malley, "Baker, Ella Josephine," American National Biography Online (2000).
G. J. Barker Benfield and Catherine Clinton, eds., Portraits of American Women (1991).
Ellen Cantarow and Susan O'Malley, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change (1980).
Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)