Today, I chose to feature Ella Baker, civil and human rights activist.
Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. When she was nine, her family moved to Littleton, North Carolina, which was her mother’s hometown. Growing up, her grandmother would tell her stories of her life as a slave and about slave revolts.
Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. During her time there, she actively opposed school policies that were unjust. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1927 and moved to New York City. In 1931, Baker joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which was dedicated to developing “black economic power through collective planning”. She eventually became YNCL’s national director. In the 1930s, Baker was involved with the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, protests against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and movement in support of the Scottsboro boys case.
In 1940, Baker began working closely with the NAACP, being hired as a secretary. She then worked as director of branches beginning in 1943, making her the highest ranked woman in the organization at the time. She advocated strongly for egalitarianism within the organization and challenged the NAACP to aid its membership in activist campaigns at the local level. She fought for the NAACP to be more democratic instead of bureaucratic and to meet the needs of the people. She left her post to take care of her ailing niece, but still stayed active as a volunteer. She eventually joined the New York branch of the NAACP, and became their president in 1952. She resigned in 1953 to run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket; she did not win.
In 1957 Baker moved to Atlanta to assist Dr. King with his new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization’s first project was Crusade for Citizenship, which was a voter registration initiative. Being hired as the conference’s first staffperson, Baker worked closely with Bayard Rustin on the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage that occurred in Washington D.C. Her gender largely kept her back from head leadership, but that did not stop her from being a fierce organizer throughout the South in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. After Reverend John Tilley resigned from executive director of the SCLC, Baker served as interim executive director for two and a half years until the position was given over to Wyatt Tee Walker in 1960.
On February 1, 1960, a group of students from North Carolina A&T University staged a sit-in at lunch counter in Greensboro because they were denied service. Baker saw this as an opportunity to help organize students to become effective assets to the movement. She resigned from SCLC and organized a meeting with the students from the Greensboro sit-in at her alma mater, Shaw University. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) was born.
Baker was one of SNCC’s highly revered adult advisors, often called the “Godmother of SNCC”. When SNCC formed two wings (direct action and voter registration), Baker was able to help SNCC coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961. Baker was very critical of the idea that people needed one strong, charismatic leader to inflict change; she often asserted “strong people don’t need strong leaders”. With this and the idea “Participatory Democracy” in mind, she focused on helping each person manifest their leadership potential instead of focusing on being a main leader of SNCC. As a mentor to SNCC, she influenced prominent people such as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, and Stokely Carmichael, among others. She later acquired the nickname “Fundi”, which is a Swahili word that refers to “a person who teaches the craft to the next generation.”
In 1964, Baker helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. When MFDP challenged the pro-segregationist delegation, a huge conflict ensued. Because of this, the MFDP was not seated, but their efforts helped to elect many black leaders to the Democratic party and influence rule changes to allow women and minorities to sit at the Democratic National Convention.
Throughout the 60s, Baker worked mainly in the South. In 1967, Baker moved back to New York, where she help form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. In 1972, she traveled around the country in support of the “Free Angela” campaign for Angela Davis. She also advocated for the Puerto Rican independence movement, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, and partnered with women’s groups such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was an activist up until her death on her birthday in 1986. She was 83 years old.