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Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses. She was a critic of professionalized, charismatic leadership and a promoter of grassroots organizing and radical democracy. She has been called “One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.”
Work with prominent organizations
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was hired in December 1940 as a secretary. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local. 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. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She believed that the work of the branches was the life blood of the NAACP. Baker despised elitism and placed her confidence in many rather than the few elitists. She recognized that the bedrock of any social change organization is not the eloquence or credentials of its top leaders, but rather, it lies in the commitment and hard work of the rank and file membership and willingness and ability of those members to engage in a process of discussion, debate, and decision making. She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization.
While traveling throughout the South on behalf of the NAACP, Baker met hundreds of black people and solidified and establish lasting, enduring relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach to political work was one important aspect of Baker’s effort to recruit more members, men and women, into the NAACP. 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. Her job as president was to supervise the field secretaries and coordinate the national office’s work with local groups. Baker’s top priority as the new director of branches was to lessen the organization’s bureaucracy and Walter Francis White’s dominating role within it. She was not fond of the fact that the program was more or less channeled through the executive secretary and the national office and not the people out in the field. She lobbied for a reduction in the rigid hierarchy within the association and the placing of more power in the hands of capable and heroic leaders. She also advocated for giving greater responsibility and autonomy to local branches. Between 1944 and 1946, Baker directed revolutionary leadership conferences in several major cities such as Chicago and Atlanta. She got top officials to deliver lectures, offer welcoming remarks, and conduct workshops. 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 (SCLC) was formed. This organization was initially planned to be a loosely structured coalition linking church based leaders in civil rights struggles across the South. The group wanted to emphasize nonviolence as a means of bringing about social progress and racial justice for southern blacks. The organization would rely on the southern black church for the base of its support. The strength of the organization rested on the political activities of its local church affiliates. It envisioned itself as the political arm of the black church. The SCLC first stepped on the political scene as an organization at the Prayer and Pilgrimage for Freedom. Baker was instrumental in pulling off this large scale event which became extremely successful. Her work as one of the organizers for this event demonstrated her ability to straddle organizational lines, deliberately ignoring and minimizing rivalries and battles. The conference’s first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign. Baker was hired as the first staff person for the new organization. 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 John Tilley, director of the SCLC 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. Baker’s job with the SCLC was more frustrating than fruitful. She was unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. She had no solid allies in the office in which she could rely.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960–1966)
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. This was a gathering of sit-in leaders to meet one another and assess their struggles and explore the possibilities for future actions. At this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. Baker saw the potential for a special type of leadership within the sit-in leaders not yet prominent in the movement who could revitalize the Black Freedom Movement and take it in a new direction. Baker wanted to bring the sit-in participants together in a way that would sustain the momentum of their actions, teach them the skills necessary, provide the resources that were needed, and also help them to coalesce into a more militant and democratic force. The SNCC became 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, called the “Godmother of SNCC”. In 1961 Ella Baker persuaded the SNCC to form two wings: One wing for direct action and the Second wing for voter registration. 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 1960s and 1970s.
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 challenged 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.
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; an interracial desegregation and human rights group based in the South. SCEF carried out the work of grassroots organizing. The organization raised money for black activists, lobbied for implementation of President Truman’s civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism. 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.
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 on her 83rd birthday.
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 to T. J. “Bob” Roberts. Ella though kept her last name. She left no diaries.