Other than slavery, The Civil Right Movement is one of the only other subjects pertaining to black Americans that is taught in the classroom. However, most of the conversation ends with the men of the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. is often the name that is spoke about the most, but black women were integral to the success of the movement. Ella Baker was one of those women. She was a leader in the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Without her, the men that were the “face” of the movement, would not have been able to achieve what they did.
Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia and moved to rural North Carolina at a young age. She spent a lot of time with her grandmother who was born a slave and it was the stories about her experience as an enslave black woman, that first inspired Ella Baker. She went on to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated as valedictorian in 1927. While she attended Shaw, she began her fight for social justice. She became infamous for fighting unfair school policies like dress codes. After her graduation, like many other African-Americans living in the South, she moved up North to New York.
While in New York, Ella began her career in journalism. After working for the American West Indian News, she began working at the Negro National News. During this time, she met another black journalist named George Schuyler who had founded the Young Negros’ Cooperative League, which sought to promote economic power through collective organizing. Ella Baker joined the organization in 1931 and quickly became its national director. During this time in NY, Ella built her reputation as a grass-roots organizer. She became a mainstay in Harlem political culture and actively protested against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and campaigned for the release of the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, who were accused of raping white women. While doing all of this, she also began a Negro History club at the Harlem Library in order to teach local youths about their history. Her time in Harlem is where she cemented her calling as a grass-roots activist and it was that approach to social justice that eventually made her invaluable to the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1938, Ella Baker began her time with the NAACP. While men served as the figureheads of the organization, Mary Lou Baker spent her time traveling as the field secretary and later as director of branches. She traveled to small towns throughout the South and recruited member, fundraised, and began local NAACP chapters. By 1943, she was the highest ranking woman in the entire organization. In her position, she tried to argue for a more de-centralized organizational structure. She believed that any movement was only successful if it was built from the bottom up and not by those at the top. She also stressed the importance of including women and young people in the movement. Without her work, the NAACP may not have ever amassed the membership it did. She made a point to not treat Southern black Americans as less than Northern ones, which was something the NAACP had struggled with in the past. She made personal connections with the people she met through organizing and it was that approach that allowed the NAACP to amass members in the South. She eventually went back to NY, where she became president of the NY chapter of the NAACP and advocated for school desegregation and called attention to police brutality.
In 1957, Ella Baker moved to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference about building on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. This eventually became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although the groups is largely associated with Martin Luther King Jr., she ran the entire behind the scenes operations of the organization. She applied her grass-roots experience and contacts to build the organization from the ground up. King was chosen as the figurehead, but the organization would have not operated without her. However, this caused tension between Baker and King. She had never believed in the idea of having a charismatic leader lead a movement and he had issues with having a woman involved in leadership. She was only ever granted the title of provisional executive director within the organization. By 1960, Ella Baker was considering quitting the organization, but then the Woolworth’s lunch counter boycott occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In the sit-ins, Ella Baker saw an opportunity for social justice issues to be dealt with at a grass-roots level. She was inspired by the young people involved in the sit-ins and after a meeting she organized with student leaders at Shaw University, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born. The group eventually organized the 1961 Freedom rides and made black voter registration a priority. They were able to extend membership to sharecroppers and other farmers throughout the South with the help of Ella. Her ideas about collective action and involving those who are normally left out of political discussions, inspired groups throughout the country.
By 1967, Ella Baker had returned to New York City. While there, she continued her role as an activist. She campaigned for Angela Davis’ release throughout the seventies and advocated against apartheid in South Africa. She remained an activist for the rights of black Americans, women, and the working class until her death in 1986 at the age of 83.
During the last election cycle, there was a lot of discussion about grass-roots organizing and the democratic party, but there was never a discussion about Ella Baker. Long before Bernie Sanders, Ella Baker did the work that was not glamorous. She went door to door, talked, listened, and worked on solutions for those she came in contact with. Although her work was not always appreciated by her male counterparts, without her work, there may have never been a Civil Rights Movement. There is a renewed discussion about how to best achieve social justice and it is more important than ever, to look to past leaders like Ella Baker for direction.
Sources used for this post:
The Parallel Rhetorics of Ella Baker by Mittie K. Carey (This particular source is from a journal called Southern Communication Journal and university access may be necessary in order to read beyond the abstracts.)