Ella Baker: Backbone of the Civil Rights Movement

By Barbra Harris

Jackson Advocate News Service

REPRINT: Mar. 26-Apr. 1, 2009There are numerous unsung heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement, and though not so unsung, Ella Baker was a powerful force of behind-the-scenes activism.As backbone of the movement for over five decades, Baker worked alongside some of the most renowned civil rights leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.She also inspired and mentored such then young civil rights stalwarts as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Bob Moses, among others.Baker is one of those persons whose efforts directly contributed to an African American, Barack Obama, being elected President of the United States.Ella Josephine Baker was born Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Va. Her parents were Georgiana and Blake Baker. When she was nine, her family moved to her mother’s hometown of Littleton, N.C.Her views on human and civil rights were formed early on when as a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories of slave revolts and how she had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner.Baker graduated as class valedictorian from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. at age 24, but she did not go quietly. As a student, she challenged school policies she thought were unfair.After graduation, she moved to New York and joined the editorial staff of American West Indian News in 1929. She later went on to become editorial assistant at the Negro National News.In 1931, Baker joined the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, founded in 1930 by black journalist and anarchist George Schuyler, whom she befriended, and soon became YNCL’s national director.Baker 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.She immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu spurned by the Harlem Renaissance.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.Baker also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YMCA.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 1960s, Baker embraced the concept of “participatory democracy,” bringing together a new formulation for the traditional appeal of democracy with an innovative tie to broader participation.There were three emphases to this new movement:• An appeal for grassroots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions;• The minimization of hierarchy (leaders) and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership; and• A call for direct action as an answer to fear isolation and intellectual detachment.“You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me,” Baker said. “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.”Baker believed in a sense of social responsibility and social reform that could happen through the efforts and determination of every citizen who wanted change.In 1938, she began her long association with the NAACP and was hired as a secretary in 1941. She traveled widely, especially throughout the South, recruiting members, raising money and organizing local campaigns.In 1943, she was named director of branches, making her the highest ranking woman in the organization. She was an outspoken woman with a strong belief in egalitarian ideals.Baker 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.She formed a network of people in the South who would go on to be important in the fight for civil rights. Some organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, but Baker’s ability to treat everyone with respect helped in her recruiting.She fought to make the NAACP more democratic and in tune with the needs of the people while trying to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front.In 1946, Baker left the NAACP and returned to New York City to care for her ailing niece, but remained a dedicated volunteer.She soon joined the New York branch to work on school desegregation and police brutality issues, and in 1952, became the branch’s president. She resigned the position in 1953 and made an unsuccessful bid for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.In January and February 1957, Baker attended conferences in Atlanta to develop a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.SCLC’s first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign, and Baker was hired as its first staff person.Along with close ally Bayard Rustin, she was co-organizer of the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage that brought thousands of activists to Washington, D.C.Being neither a man nor a minister, Baker was not seriously considered for executive director, but she worked with SCLC ministers to hire the Rev. John Tilley in that capacity.Baker worked closely with 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, Baker served as SCLC’s interim executive director for two and a half years until Wyatt Lee Walker assumed the post in 1960.With the black college student sit-in movement to desegregate public facilities taking hold, Baker persuaded SCLC to invite students to the Easter weekend Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed.SNCC became the most active organization in the Mississippi Delta and was relatively open to women.After the conference, Baker resigned from SCLC and began a long and intimate relationship with SNCC. Along with Howard Zinn, she was one of SNCC’s most revered adult advisors.It was with Baker’s help that SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) coordinated the freedom rides of 1961 and began to work closely with sharecroppers and others throughout the South.Ella Baker insisted, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” and criticized the notion of a single charismatic leader at the helm of movements for social change.Baker pushed the idea of “participatory democracy” and wanted each person to get involved individually.She also argued that “people under the heel (the oppressed) had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get from under their oppression.”Baker was a teacher and mentor to the young people of SNCC, and influenced the thinking of important figures such as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who wrote “Ella’s Song” in Baker’s honor.Through SNCC, her ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s.Baker’s ideas influenced the philosophy of participatory democracy advocated by Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the time. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that formed in the 1960s and 1970s.Baker worked from 1962 to 1967 on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund, which sought to help blacks and whites work together for social justice.There, Baker worked closely with friend and longtime anti-racist activist Anne Braden.In the 1950s, Braden, who is white, had been accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist.Baker thought socialism was a more humane alternative to capitalism but had mixed feelings about communism.Nevertheless, she became a staunch defender of Braden and her husband Carl, and encouraged SNCC to reject red-baiting because she believed it  was 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.Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an alternative to the all-white, all-male Mississippi Democratic Party. She was MFDP’s Washington coordinator and accompanied a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.MFDP challenged the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans and women to participate in party elections in the South, causing a major conflict.The delegation was not seated but MFDP’s influence helped elect numerous black officials in Mississippi and forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates beginning with the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.Later in 1964, Baker returned to New York where she continued her activism, collaborating with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization.In 1972, she traveled the nation in support of the “Free Angela” campaign demanding the release of jailed Angela Davis, who had been accused of crimes now labeled as domestic terrorism.Baker 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.Ella Baker made no secret that she, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other SCLC members differed in opinion and philosophy.She once exclaimed that the “movement made Martin, not Martin the movement!”Another of Baker’s speeches urging 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.Baker remained an activist until her death in 1986 at age 83.She was a notoriously private person, and even those close to her did not know she was married for 20 years.Though Ella Baker left no memoirs or diaries and always thought of herself as a behind-the-scenes operator, her ideals were profound and are thought-provoking even today.“Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind,” she said.“Until the killing of black men – black mothers’ sons – becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”In 1996, Oakland, CA, activist Van Jones founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to promote positives alternatives to violence and incarceration through its cutting-edge campaigns.The center has also mounted an active campaign for green economics and “green collar jobs,” In fact, Jones has published a new book entitled, The Green Collar Economy.The concept is to provide training for, and create, jobs that save the planet’s environment, including weatherizing, organic gardening and installation of solar panels, among other strategies.Ella Baker’s legacy, along with that of slain Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, is recognized locally each year with the Medgar Evers/Ella Baker Civil Rights Lecture Series, which explores social justice issues.The lecture series is sponsored by the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center.