Ella Baker

Ella Baker
Born Ella Josephine Baker
(1903-12-13)December 13, 1903
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Died December 13, 1986(1986-12-13) (aged 83)
New York City, New York, USA
Alma mater Shaw University
Organization NAACP (1938–1953)
SCLC (1957–1960)
SNCC (1960–1962)
Movement Civil Rights Movement
Spouse(s) T.J. (Bob) Roberts, divorced 1958

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.[1] 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."[2]

Early life and career

Ella Jo Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised by Georgiana and Blake Baker, her parents. When she was seven, 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. Baker's maternal grandmother Josephine Elizabeth "Bet" Ross,[3]:1907 had been enslaved and was whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master.[3]:1906

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.[4] 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 Negros' 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.[5][6]

She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, where she taught courses in consumer education, labour 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 accused of raping two white women. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA. During this time, she lived with and married her college sweetheart, T. J. (Bob) Roberts; interestingly, most people did not know she had ever married. Their respective work schedules kept them often apart, and they finally divorced in 1958. Her life in Harlem was very exciting, and she befriended the future scholar and activist John Henrik Clarke and the future writer and civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray, and many others who would become lifelong friends.[7] The Harlem Renaissance influenced Baker in her thoughts and teachings. She advocated for widespread, local action as a means of change. Her emphasis on a grass roots approach to the struggle for equal rights influenced the success of the modern Civil Rights Movement.[8]

"Participatory Democracy"

In the 1960s, the idea of "Participatory Democracy" was created. It was a new formulation, bringing to the traditional appeal of democracy an innovative tie to broader participation. There were three primary emphases to this new movement:

Ella Baker stated:

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.[10]

Baker's statement advocates a more collectivist model of leadership over the "prevailing messianic style of the period".[11] In essence, what Baker was largely arguing against was the Civil Rights Movement mirroring the organization model of the Black church. The Black church, at the time, had largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, but also that of the Black church.[12]

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.[13]

Work with prominent organizations

NAACP (1938–1953)

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,[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] Her job as president was to supervise the field secretaries and coordinate the national office's work with local groups.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] She resigned in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

The SCLC first stepped on the political scene as an organization at the Prayer 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.[24] 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.[25]

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.[8] Historian Thomas F. Jackson notes that Baker criticized the organization for "programmatic sluggishness and King's distance from the people. King was a better orator than democratic crusader [she] concluded." [26]

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.[27] At this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") 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.[28] To this end she strove to keep the students independent of the older, church-based leadership. In her address at Shaw she warned the activists to be wary of "leader-centered orientation." Julian Bond described the speech as "an eye opener" and probably the best of the conference. "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" [29]

SNCC became the most active organization in the deeply oppressed Mississippi Delta, and it was relatively open to women.[30] Following the conference Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and intimate relationship with SNCC.[31] 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 the 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. In keeping the idea of "participatory democracy", Baker wanted each person to get involved individually.[32] She also argued that "people under the heel", the most oppressed members 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, 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.[33]

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.[34]

The 1964 schism with the national Democratic Party led SNCC towards the "black power" position. Baker was less involved with SNCC during this period, but her withdrawal was due more to her declining health than to ideological differences. According to Barbara Ransby, Baker saw black power as a relief from the "stale and unmoving demands and language of the more mainstream civil rights groups at the time." [35] Never a believer in philosophical nonviolence, she accepted the turn towards armed self-defense that SNCC made in the course of its development. Her friend and biographer Joanne Grant wrote that "Baker, who always said that she would never be able to turn the other cheek, turned a blind eye to the prevalence of weapons. While she herself would rely on her fists … she had no qualms about target practice." [36]

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.[8] 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.[37] 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.[38]

Final years

That same year, Ella Baker returned to New York City, 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.[39]

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 kept her last name. [40] She left no diaries.


The 1981 documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, directed by Joanne Grant, showed Baker's important role in the civil rights movement. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1984.[41]

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit strategy and action center based in Oakland, CA, was founded in 1996.

Historian and longtime activist Barbara Ransby wrote an acclaimed biography of Baker, titled Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, which was published in 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press.[42] Ransby continues to be an active voice on popular movements, Black feminism, and issues of Black freedom, frequently invoking how Baker's ideas can be applied to the work of contemporary activists.[43][44]

In 2009 Ella Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

In 2014 the University of California at Santa Barbara established a visiting professorship to honor Ella Baker.[45] Shana Redmond was chosen as the first Ella Baker Visiting Professor.[45]


See also


  1. Pascal Robert, "Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity" Huffington Post, February 21, 2013
  2. University of North Carolina Press website "Books: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby"
  3. 1 2 Moye, J. Todd (2013). Ella Baker : community organizer of the civil rights movement. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-1442215658.
  4. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 13–63.
  5. Johnson, Cedric Kwesi. A Woman of Influence, In These Times. Retrieved February 18, 2008.
  6. Ransby, Barbara (1994). "Ella Josephine Baker". In Buhle, Mary Jo et al. The American Radical. Psychology Press. p. 290. ISBN 9780415908047.
  7. Ransby, Ella Baker, pp. 64–104.
  8. 1 2 3 Ransby, Ella Baker
  9. "Women in the Civil Rights Movement", pp. 51-52.
  10. Women in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 51.
  11. Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. South End Press: Cambridge, 2004. p. 159
  12. Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. South End Press: Cambridge, 2004.
  13. Barbra Harris "Ella Baker: Backbone of the Civil Rights Movement" Jackson Advocate News Service
  14. Ransby, Ella Baker, p. 137.
  15. Ransby, p. 139.
  16. Ransby, p. 136.
  17. Ransby, p. 148.
  18. Ransby, p. 137.
  19. Ransby, p. 138.
  20. Ransby, p. 150.
  21. Ransby, pp. 105–158.
  22. Ransby, p. 174.
  23. Ransby, "Ella Baker", p. 175.
  24. Ransby, "Ella Baker", p. 176.
  25. Ransby, pp. 170–175.
  26. Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 104
  27. Ransby, p. 240.
  28. Ransby, "Ella Baker", p.239.
  29. Susan Gushee O'Malley "Baker, Ella Josephine" American National Biography Online
  30. Women in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 2.
  31. Creating Black Americans, pp. 291.
  32. Creating Black Americans, p. 292.
  33. Ransby, pp. 239–272.
  34. Ransby, Ella Baker, pp. 330–344.
  35. Ransby, p. 347-351.
  36. Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (Wiley, 1999), 194-199
  37. Ransby, p. 231.
  38. Ransby, pp. 209–238, 273–328.
  39. Ransby, pp. 344–374.
  40. Ransby, pp. 101–103.
  41. "Candace Award Recipients 1982-1990, Page 1". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  42. Hill, Copyright 2016 The University of North Carolina at Chapel. "UNC Press - Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement". uncpress.unc.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-22.
  43. Ransby, Barbara (June 12, 2015). "Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement". Colorlines.
  44. Ransby, Barbara (2011-04-04). "Quilting a Movement". In These Times. ISSN 0160-5992. Retrieved 2016-02-22.
  45. 1 2 Shana Redmonds Named to Professorship Honoring Civil Rights Activist Ella Baker : The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education
  46. Collins, Gail (September 22, 2007), "The Women Behind the Men", The New York Times
  47. Grant, Joanne, film, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (Icarus Films, 1981)
  48. The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches and firsthand accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954–1990, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Penguin Books, 1991), p. 121.
  49. "Ella Baker's Life". Ella Baker School. Retrieved 24 February 2015.


External links

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