Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was a leading 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. She also mentored such then young civil rights stalwarts as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses.
Listen to an interview with Ella Baker, free from the University of South Carolina. Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised by Georgiana and Blake Baker. When she was eight, her family moved to her mother's hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. As a slave, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner. Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduating as class valedictorian in 1927 at the age of 24. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating, she moved to New York City. 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 George Schuyler, then a black journalist and anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL), which sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined in 1931 and 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 in Alabama, a group of young black men falsely accused of raping a white woman. 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.
In the 1960's, the idea of "Participatory Democracy" was created. The meaning of this was bringing together a new formulation for the traditional appeal of democracy with an innovative tie to broader participation. There were 3 primary emphasis to this new movement: (1) an appeal for grass roots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions, (2) the minimization of hierarchy(leaders) and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership, and (3) a call for direct action as an answer to fear isolation and intellectual detachment. Ella Baker said herself,
You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.
She believed in a sense of social responsibility and social reform but the only way this could happen would be through the determination of every citizen who wanted change.
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was hired in 1941 as a 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.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957-1960)
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 neither a man nor 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 grievances. 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.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960-1962)
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. The SNCC became the the most active organization in the Delta, and it was relatively open to women. Following the conference Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and intimate relationship with SNCC (pronounced "snick"). 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. Ella Baker pushed the idea of "Participatory Democracy", therefore, she wanted each person to get involved individually. 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, Stokely 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.
Southern Conference Education Fund (1962-1967)
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 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 an activist until her death in 1986.
It is widely written that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as other SCLC members, differed in opinion and philosophy. She 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 a notoriously private person. People close to her did not know that she was married for twenty years. She left no diaries.