Monday, February 15, 2016


   Thanks in part to the growth of interest and the Black Lives Matter movement, more people know who Ella Baker was than before.  I remember being so delighted to find out about her especially because of the important role that woman have played in the history of the civil rights movement. Here was a woman who was so key to the struggle that it appears very little would have happened without her presence and leadership.  I knew that Ella Baker was the greatest unsung hero of the civil rights movement. 
   Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia and died on December 13, 1986 her 83rd birthday.  The Ella Baker Center took her name because of  "Wanting to celebrate Ella Jo Baker as an unsung hero of racial and economic justice and seeking to honor her legacy of leadership and movement building, our founders chose to name our Center for Ella Baker. Her audacity to dream big is a cornerstone of our philosophy."
   "Fundi" was her nickname. A documentary "Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker" was made in 1981.  Sweet Honey in the Rock composed a song about her - Ella. "We who believe in freedom cannot rest..."   Go to this link for the words to "Ella's Song" by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
   In her early years in rural North Carolina, Ella was fortunate to hear stories from her grandmother about slave revolts and her own resistance to the slave owner. Baker later went on to study at Shaw University and graduated as valedictorian, while protesting school policies she thought were unfair. She moved to New York City to work with various organizations. In 1930 she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League to develop "black economic power through cooperative planning."  She was also involved in women's organizations.  "She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”  
From the Zinn Education Project site:  "Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946. Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship."
Ella Josephine Baker. Portrait by Robert Shetterly.
"On February 1, 1960, a group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they had been denied service. Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — was born."

   Ella Baker may not have been the first but certainly prominently began the use of Gandhian principles of nonviolent direct action in organizing the movement.  Along with CORE, SNCC organized the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1964 SNCC organized Freedom Summer -- voting rights seen as key!  

   From the Biographer of Ella Baker Barbara Ransby - "For more than 50 years, she traveled the breadth of this country organizing, protesting and advocating for social justice. Her main concern was the plight of African-Americans, whose rights, she argued, were the litmus test for American democracy. But she was also concerned with the cause of labor, the poor, Latinos and women.

"Over the course of her life she worked alongside some of the most well known civil-rights leaders of the 20th century. They included W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr.

"But celebrity did not impress Baker. Instead she placed emphasis on grassroots organizing and local leadership. Her own humble style is part of the reason her contributions and accomplishments are less known than those of many of her male counterparts."
   To show the complexity and strength of Ella Baker here is an excerpt from the American National Biography online -     "After hundreds of students sat in at segregated lunch counters in early 1960, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite them to the Southside Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend. From this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was eventually formed. Although the SCLC leadership pressured Baker to influence the students to become a youth chapter of SCLC, she refused and encouraged the students to beware of SCLC's "leader-centered orientation." She felt that the students had a right to decide their own structure. Baker's speech "More Than a Hamburger," which followed King's and James Lawson's speeches, urged the students to broaden their social vision of discrimination to include more than integrating lunch counters. Julian Bond described the speech as "an eye opener" and probably the best of the three. "She didn't say, 'Don't let Martin Luther King tell you what to do,' " Bond remembers, "but you got the real feeling that that's what she meant" (Hampton and Fayer, p. 63). James Forman, who became director of SNCC a few months later, said Baker felt SCLC "was depending too much on the press and on the promotion of Martin King, and was not developing enough indigenous leadership across the South" (Forman, p. 216).
    "After the Easter conference weekend, Baker resigned from the SCLC, and after having helped Walker learn his job she went to work for SNCC in August. To support herself she worked as a human relations consultant for the Young Women's Christian Association in Atlanta. Baker continued as the "ever-present mentor" (Garrow, p. 518) to SNCC civil rights workers. At a rancorous SNCC meeting at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in August 1961, Baker mediated between one faction advocating political action through voter registration and another faction advocating nonviolent direct action. She suggested that voter registration would necessitate confrontation that would involve them in direct action. Baker believed that voting was necessary but did not believe that the franchise would cure all problems. She also understood the appeal of nonviolence as a tactic, but she did not believe in it personally: "I have not seen anything in the nonviolent technique that can dissuade me from challenging somebody who wants to step on my neck. If necessary, if they hit me, I might hit them back" (Cantarow and O'Malley, p. 82).

   Baker was a mentor to SNCC and many young organizers including Bob Moses, Julian Bond, Bernice Johnson Reagon (Sweet Honey in the Rock), Marian Wright Edelman (Children's Defense Fund), and Eleanor Holmes Norton.
   After SNCC began to "unravel" Ella Baker went on to fight against the War in Vietnam, for Puerto Rican independence, against Apartheid in South Africa, and more.  She never stopped fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Although she has not been well known, there was no question that she has left a deep mark on the fabric of this country.  We would likely not have had such a successful Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s without this courageous woman. Would that we could get her again!!  We need her now!

Who was Ella Baker? the Ella Baker Center -  
Models of Courageous Citizenship -  
Profile of Ella Josephine Baker -  
Centennial of Ella Baker's birth is a day to remember  -  
Great list of books about Ella Baker and more -  
Article by Barbara Ransby about the Myth of the Leaderless Movement -  
Oral History Interview -  
Link for Barbara Ransby's book  "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement" -  
American National Biography online -  

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