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Baker, Ella 1903–1986

Ella Baker 19031986

Social activist

At a Glance

Began to Identify With the Unemployed

Twenty Years With the NAACP

Joined the Bus Boycott

They Havent Ever Had a Woman Say No to Them

Godmother of the SNCC

Gave Keynote Speech at MFDPs Jackson Convention

They Called Her Fundi


A leader in the fight to end discrimination against African Americans, Ella Baker inspired several generations in struggles against racism, poverty, and injustice throughout the world. Baker had a gift for organizing people. For nearly twenty years, she worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She then cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced snick), and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). All of these groups made historic gains in the struggle for civil rights for black Americans.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1903. She grew up in North Carolina, in a small, rural community where working together and looking after others was seen as a natural part of daily life. As documented in Ellen Cantarows Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, Baker recalled: We had a big garden, much too big for the size of the family. Id pick a bushel or more and we didnt need them, so youd give them to the neighbors that didnt have them. Thats the way you did it. It was no hassle about it. She was raised, as she put it, in a kind of family that was concerned about people.

Furthermore, Bakers family instilled in her a sense of pride in her heritage and respect for all men and women, especially her elders. In the 1981 film Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, the activist described her mother, Georgianna, as someone you didnt talk back to. Being raised by a woman who commanded respect helped Baker later on in her life, when she would occupy leadership positions in civil rights organizations run almost exclusively by men.

Bakers grandfather also had a profound effect on how she viewed the world. She remembered him in Fundi as a very tall, very black man who was very proud of being black. Consequently, from the time she was a child, she refused to be treated as anyones inferior; when she was six years old and a white boy called her a nigger, she reportedly hit him in the face.

In 1927 Baker graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the top of her class. At that time, teaching was the only profession open to most educated southern black women. Bakers mother wanted her to become a schoolteacher, but Ella had different goals. Her education had been quite rigid, and she commented in Fundi that she did not see schools as places where one was necessarily free to express

At a Glance

Born December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, VA; died December 13, 1986, in New York City; daughter of Blake (a ferryboat waiter) and Georgianna (a teacher) Baker. Education: Shaw University, B.A., 1927.

American West Indian News, editorial staff member, 192930; Negro National News, office manager and editorial assistant, 1932; Young Negroes Cooperative League, national director, c 193238; Works Progress Administration (WPA), consumer education project teacher, 193638; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), assistant field secretary, 193842, national field secretary and director of branches, 194246, president of New York City branch, 195456; American Cancer Society, Harlem branch, founder and staff member, 194754; Montgomery bus boycott adviser, 195556; In Friendship, cofounder, 1956; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, GA, associate director, 195859, interim director, 195960; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), cofounder and adviser, beginning in 1960; Young womens Christian Association (YWCA), Atlanta, human relations consultant, 196063; Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), staff member, 196365, adviser, beginning in 1965; Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), keynote speaker at convention in Jackson, MS, Washington office organizer, and adviser, all beginning in 1964; Mass Party Organizing Committee, vice-chair, beginning in 1972; adviser to numerous liberation and human rights groups, including the African National Congress and the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, 197286.

Selected awards: Candace Award for outstanding achievement from the Coalition of 100 Black Women.

an opinion, something she was very anxious to do.

Baker wanted to be a medical missionary, a sociologist, or a social worker, but she did not have the money for foreign travel, medical school, or graduate school, so she moved to New York City to find work. At first, in spite of her education, she could only get waitressing and factory work. She also worked for newspapers, first an American West Indian newspaper, then the Negro National News. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, New York City was home to many radical activists and intellectuals. Baker was eager to learn as much as she could and attended all sorts of political discussions.

Began to Identify With the Unemployed

Living in New York City during the Great Depression, Baker saw a great deal of economic suffering; many people were out of work and struggling to meet basic survival needs. The prevalence of economic hardship greatly influenced her politics: With the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control, she explained, as related in Paula Giddingss When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, adding I began to identify with the unemployed.

In 1932 Baker was moved to start the Young Negroes Cooperative League with George Schuyler, a leading black newspaper writer. She and Schuyler saw that, through pooling resources and working together, people with very little money could buy more with what they had. They formed groups called cooperatives, which were different from regular grocery stores because they were owned by the customers. Baker served as an adviser to many of these new businesses. Shyrlee Dallards Ella Baker: A Leader Behind the Scenes quoted Bakers description of her work with the Young Negroes Cooperative League: The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.

Through her affiliation with the league, Baker learned how to buy quality goods for less money. She became so good at it that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired her to teach buying classes. She taught for the WPA for three years in the late 1930s.

Twenty Years With the NAACP

In 1938 Ella Baker went to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that was fighting against the Jim Crow laws that legally enforced segregation in the South. Serving as a field organizer who traveled to different southern NAACP offices recruiting new members and raising money, she was away from New York for six months of every year, sometimes visiting a different city every day. Baker was a powerful organizer because she could talk to poor and middle-class African Americans alike; wherever she went, people felt she was one of them. You start where the people are, she was quoted as saying in Moving the Mountain.

In 1942 Baker became nationwide director of branches for the NAACP. Four years later, she resigned her post because she had taken on the responsibility of raising her eight-year-old niece, Jackie Brockington. Aside from the fact that she could no longer spend much time away from home, Baker believed that the organization was becoming too bureaucratic and removed from the needs of ordinary black Americans. But when Jackie turned sixteen in 1954, Baker returned to the NAACP, this time as president of the New York City branch. She became involved in the struggle to integrate New York Citys public schools. Her dissatisfactions with the NAACP, however, did not go away. She felt that the organization was too wrapped up in legalism, she proclaimed in Fundi. If people werent willing to do what [was] necessary to move beyond a given spot, you were stuck. By legalism, she meant that the NAACP was trying to change society through the courts. Baker had come to feel that this was not enough.

Joined the Bus Boycott

Not everyone in the country was stuck, however, and it did not take Baker long to find people who were, indeed, willing to move beyond established, conventional ways of achieving political ends. In 1955 thousands of African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, stopped riding public buses for 381 days. This action, known as the Montgomery bus boycott, was initiated by a civil rights organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), in order to protest laws that forced blacks to sit in the backs of buses. Baker went down to Alabama to advise the leaders of the MIA and together with civil rights activists A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levison founded a group called In Friendship, which raised money for the boycott. Ultimately, the protest was successful; in 1956 the Supreme Court ruled that the bus company and the city of Montgomery had to allow black passengers to sit wherever they wished.

They Havent Ever Had a Woman Say No to Them

After such a triumph, Baker and other boycott leaders were anxious not to lose momentum. In 1957 they called a meeting of southern black ministers who were active in civil rights organizing. Out of that meeting, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man whose leadership was in many ways responsible for the triumph of the Montgomery bus boycott, was chosen to lead the new organization. The SCLCs purpose was to keep the black church-based movements in touch with one another so that they could work together. But their purposes went far beyond legal and political reform; members of the SCLC were on a mission to, in their words, redeem the soul of America, reported Adam Fairclough in his 1987 booktitled To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., after their creed.

Baker directed the SCLC from 1958 through 1960, but her relationship with the organization was not always an easy one. The majority of members were men and ministers, and they were not always ready to listen to an opinionated woman who was not part of the clergy. Eleanor Holmes Norton, an early member of SNCC who later became the District of Columbias congressional representative, recalled in Fundi that, as a woman in a leadership position, Baker had too much talent for that time to be accepted by the ministers.

Baker also remembered her own refusal to be intimidated: I wasnt one to say yes, just because [ideas or directives] came from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, she told Cantarow. Reminiscing about it with some amusement in the film Fundi, she admitted: I was difficult. I was not an easy pushover I could talk back a lot. Not only could, but did. Its a strange thing about men, if they havent ever had a woman say no to them, they dont know what to do sometimes.

Godmother of the SNCC

Meanwhile, throughout the South, students were holding sit-in demonstrations to protest the unequal treatment of blacks at lunch counters, movie theaters, libraries, courthouses, and full-service restaurants. Baker and some of the student leaders thought that these protests could be even more effective if the various student groups were working together. In 1960 Baker called a conference of all the student leaders. This meeting led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that was at the forefront of student civil rights activism of the 1960s.

Many of the representatives of older organizations who were at the conference wanted the students to join their groups, but Baker believed that the young activists could be a stronger force on their own. She encouraged the SNCC to cooperate with other groups toward common ends, but to stay separate. Julian Bond, an early member of SNCC, noted in a segment of Fundi, She insisted that we had something special.

Baker guided SNCC through many hard decisions without trying to take the organization out of the students hands. As Baker put it in the film: I had always considered that my role was to facilitate I did not need to be a leader so they felt they could trust me. Endowed with a talent for organizing and communicating with young people, Baker valued her work with them above everything else. She admired young activists because they acted as though this [equality] was their right. No would you please. The respect was mutual; youth of all races looked up to Baker. Soon after her death, students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor honored that special relationship by naming a campus antiracism organizing center after her.

Gave Keynote Speech at MFDPs Jackson Convention

The SNCC led voter registration drives in parts of the rural South where, at that time, African Americans who tried to vote were often risking their lives. In 1964 the SNCC organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) so that blacks in Mississippi would have an alternative to the regular Democratic party, which they felt excluded them. That year, the MFDP held a convention in Jackson, Mississippi, at which Baker was the keynote speaker. She then went to Washington, D.C., to set up the partys national office. As Baker indicated in Fundi, she believed that there was no way of effecting a basic change without political clout. The one way blacks could do that was through the ballot.

In the Mississippi primary the MFDP received more votes than the regular Democratic party, yet, at the convention in Atlantic City, the national party would not seat the MFDPs delegates. President Lyndon B. Johnson turned them down because he was afraid of losing his white southern support. In the ensuing years, however, many MFDP candidates were elected to local and state offices. The MFDP had won support all over the nation, and was, no doubt, partly responsible for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to deny any adult U.S. citizen the right to vote and guaranteed federal protection of that right. The passage of this law was a major achievement for the civil rights movement.

Soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Baker moved back to Harlem, where she continued to advise the SNCC, SCLC, and MFDP. In the late 1960s, these groups became less active; Baker did not. She devoted her energies to community organizations and human rights movements all over the world, particularly the African National Congress, the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, and liberation groups in Zimbabwe.

They Called Her Fundi

Those who knew Baker called her Fundi, which is a Swahili word for a person who masters a craft with the help of his or her community, practices it, then teaches it to the next generation. Bakers craft was organizing people to work together for social change. Gospel singer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song about her called Ellas Song, which celebrates her role as Fundi to the American civil rights movement: That which touches me most is that I had the chance to work with people / Passing on to others that which was passed on to me.

Baker died in 1986 on December 13, her eighty-third birthday. Shortly before her death, she was asked what had kept her going in her lifelong struggle against injustice. As quoted in Moving the Mountain, Baker answered in the spirit of a Fundi: I dont claim to have a corner on an answer, but I believe that the struggle is eternal. Somebody else carries on.



Cantarow, Ellen, and others, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, Feminist Press, 1980.

Dallard, Shyrlee, Ella Baker: A Leader Behind the Scenes, Silver Burdett Press, 1990.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, Penguin, 1991.

Fairclough, Adam, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Morrow , 1984.

Powledge, Fred, Free At Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It, Little, Brown, 1991.


Christian Century, January 714, 1987.

Essence, February 1990.

Facts on File, December 19, 1986.

Jet, January 19, 1987.

Ms., May/June 1980.


Baker was the subject of a documentary film titled Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, Icarus Films, 1981, and the musical composition Ellas Song, written and performed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1981.

Liza Featherstone

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Baker, Ella Josephine


Ella Josephine Baker helped found the U.S. civil rights movement and organize three national civil rights organizations.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 13, 1903, the second of three children of Georgianna Ross Baker and Blake Baker. Baker's mother insisted that her children do well in school, because she felt that they needed an education in order to live a full life. Baker was sent to a private boarding school from ninth grade to twelfth grade, after her mother decided that she and her siblings were not receiving high-quality instruction in the public school they had been attending. In 1918, Baker began studying at Shaw University, an all-black school in Raleigh, North Carolina, that offered high school and college-level instruction.

Baker graduated from Shaw University in 1927, ranked first in her class. However, she did not have enough money for further schooling to become either a medical missionary or a social worker, occupations to which she had aspired. Her college degree in hand, she went to New York City.

While living in New York, Baker wrote articles for Harlem newspapers, including the West Indian Review. Living and working in Harlem during the mid-to late 1920s, she became a part of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of high artistic achievement and greater awareness of the possibilities for equality, justice, and true freedom. Baker participated in political discussions with many people, all over New York City. She later recalled, "Wherever there was a discussion, I'd go. It didn't matter if it was all men, and maybe I was the only woman … it didn't matter."

In the early days of the Great Depression, Baker was working for a Harlem newspaper along with George Samuel Schuyler, who was well known in the black community for his writing and who frequently railed against racial prejudice. In one article, Schuyler proposed that African Americans set up cooperatives to purchase goods in larger quantities, at lower prices than they could get otherwise. The response to this article was so positive that Schuyler decided to set up a cooperative on his own with Baker's help. Baker learned a great deal in this experience, and became an acknowledged expert on consumer affairs, a new idea that she helped introduce to the black community nationwide. In 1935, she was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a group of programs set up by President franklin d. roosevelt's new deal, to teach people living in Harlem how to purchase the most for the little money they had.

Baker worked for the WPA until 1938, when she left to become an assistant field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), the first civil rights organization established in the United States.

At that time the NAACP had fewer members in the South than in any other part of the United States, and most of its members were professionals—doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Baker believed that the organization had to reach the larger population of working people in

order to accomplish its tasks. She targeted factory workers, household workers, and construction workers and tried to get them to support the NAACP. By 1941, thanks to Baker and the other NAACP field staffers, the NAACP's southern membership rolls had increased significantly.

In 1942 Baker was promoted to director of branches for the organization. In that position, she helped branch offices organize fund-raising and membership drives and encouraged them to become involved in local affairs to improve the lot of black people in their communities. Through her contact with the branch offices, the organization became aware of court cases they could bring on behalf of blacks who were denied their civil rights, such as access to public institutions of higher education.

"Strong people don't need strong leaders."
—Ella Baker

In 1954 Baker was named as president of the New York City branch of the NAACP. In May of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed.873. The Court ruled in Brown that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. As a result, school districts in cities across the nation had to make sure they were not violating the law. Based on her experience raising her niece, Jackie, Baker believed that New York City schools were segregated, and she and other community leaders pressured city hall to examine the school system more closely for evidence of illegal segregation. The next year, the mayor of New York City asked Baker to join his newly created Commission on School Integration.

To present the commission's findings to parents of schoolchildren, Baker set up meetings around New York City. When she found that many parents were deeply concerned over the quality of their neighborhood schools, Baker encouraged them to petition the school board to allow their children to attend schools of their own choosing. In response to the petitions, New York developed one of the first open-enrollment plans for public schools. Open enrollment allowed public school students to attend schools outside their own neighborhoods, without requiring them to change their residency or pay extra tuition or transportation costs.

A new chapter in the civil rights movement began when rosa parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus on December 1, 1955. In Montgomery, black passengers could sit only in the back of the bus, behind the first ten rows of seats. Whites could sit in the black section of the bus, but when they did, a black person could not sit next to or in front of a white person. And black people could be forced to give up their seats if a white person had no place to sit.

Parks was an officer of the NAACP's Montgomery branch and had worked with Baker on the NAACP's Leadership Conference, a program designed to help local members develop their leadership skills. In support of Parks, leaders of Montgomery's black community, including Dr. martin luther king jr., organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott lasted from December 1, 1955, until December 20, 1956, when blacks in Montgomery heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on December 17 that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional (Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114 [Nov. 13, 1956], reh'g denied, 352 U.S. 950, 77 S. Ct. 323, 1 L. Ed. 2d 245).

After the success of the montgomery bus boycott, Baker and others eventually convinced King to call a meeting of southern black leaders to plan to extend the battle. The meeting King called was to take place in Atlanta on January 11, 1957. The evening before, several locations in Montgomery were bombed, including homes of white and black supporters of the civil rights movement. King and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, whose home was one of those bombed, left the meeting to investigate the incidents. Baker and an associate stayed in Atlanta to manage the conference with Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. This meeting was the beginning of the southern christian leadership conference (SCLC), an umbrella organization for groups fighting for civil rights.

One of the SCLC's first nationwide efforts was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration program. By September 1959, when the organization had not motivated masses of African Americans to register, Baker proposed three changes that she believed would result in a stronger organization. The first suggestion was to create an overarching plan to coordinate the activities of SCLC member groups. The second was to actively develop the leadership skills of people in the member organizations who had demonstrated abilities in that area. The third was to organize black southerners to fight every form of discrimination by using mass action and nonviolent resistance.

One method of nonviolent resistance, the sit-in, was used as early as 1942 by a civil rights organization called the congress of racial equality (CORE) to protest racial discrimination. Not until 1960, however, were sit-ins widely used as a form of protest. In February 1960, four black students sat at the lunch counter in a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused service, because it was a "whites-only" lunch counter, but remained seated until the store closed for the day. News of the incident spread quickly, and area high school and college students joined them in the following days. By the end of March, students had staged sit-ins in many other southern cities. Baker realized that although the sitins were generating publicity for the civil rights movement, their influence would be greater if they were better coordinated, so in April 1960 Baker organized a conference for student civil rights activists at Shaw University. Over three hundred students attended the meeting, which was the genesis of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC). Among those attending were Marion Barry, future mayor and future city council member of Washington, D.C., and julian bond, future Georgia legislator.

Baker resigned from the SCLC and became SNCC's adviser and organized its main office. SNCC developed a unique, separate identity within the civil rights movement because of Baker's style of leadership. Baker believed that everyone in an organization should lead it, so she made sure that everyone in attendance at meetings stated an opinion, and that no other single civil rights leader or organization, including the NAACP and King, directed the activities of the committee. When SNCC nearly split apart over whether to pursue direct action (such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins) or voter registration, Baker suggested that the organization could do both, setting the stage for the 1961 Freedom Rides.

The Freedom Rides were begun in 1961 as a response to a 1960 ruling, Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 206, 81 S. Ct. 182, 5 L. Ed. 2d 206, in which the Supreme Court decided that interstate buses and trains, and the facilities in the terminals that served them, could not constitutionally remain segregated. The ruling was flagrantly ignored throughout the South. The Freedom Riders, who were both black and white, intended to stop the segregation by traveling together along the routes where segregated facilities were located. The Freedom Rides drew the attention of the Congress, which began debate on a civil rights bill in the summer of 1963. The 1964 civil rights act, as the bill was called, was finally passed on July 2, 1964, guaranteeing African Americans equal protection in the use of hotels, restaurants, and other public establishments; in job opportunities, raises, and promotions; and in the use of public schools (Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241).

While the Freedom Riders traveled across the South, SNCC also pursued voter registration. In 1963, Baker went to Mississippi to help with the Freedom Vote, a project of CORE and SNCC. The Freedom Vote was a mock election intended to demonstrate that, contrary to the opinions held by many white southerners, blacks were interested in voting. Baker assisted the project by speaking at rallies, setting up polling places, and collecting and counting the ballots on voting day. The Freedom Vote was a big success: more than 80,000 of the 90,000 people who cast ballots that day were black, even though only around 20,000 blacks were registered for real elections. Two years later, in August 1965, the efforts of Baker and thousands of other activists bore fruit when the voting rights act (Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437) was passed. The Voting Rights Act nearly eliminated one of the last ways that had been used to prevent African Americans from voting—the literacy test—by prohibiting its use in states where fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters were registered.

In 1964 Baker again helped organize a civil rights group. The group was the Mississippi Freedom democratic party (MFDP), begun in response to an established political party, the Mississippi Democratic party. The MFDP attempted to represent the state of Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by claiming that, as an interracial group, it was better able to do so than the all-white Mississippi Democratic party. hubert h. humphrey, vice president of the United States, and Walter F. Mondale, Minnesota attorney general, suggested a compromise: two MFDP members could be named as

delegates to the convention, but would not be part of Mississippi's delegation. The MFDP refused this offer, but its request was the catalyst for a new rule passed by the national Democratic party, that all state delegations would have to be racially mixed.

After achieving notable successes in the U.S. civil rights movement, Baker continued to serve as SNCC's mentor as the organization became involved in protests against the vietnam war, and as an advocate for the free speech movement and women's rights. She also worked toward increased civil rights for blacks in other countries, including the former Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; South Africa; and Puerto Rico.

Baker died in New York City on December 13, 1986, her eighty-third birthday. By that time, some of the organizations she had been involved with no longer existed. SNCC fell apart after dissension developed over black power, or black independence from white America. The MFDP lasted through the 1967 elections, winning offices in local races, but was no longer needed after African Americans were allowed to join the state Democratic party. Baker's work, however, lives on in a generation of black U.S. leaders she nurtured and encouraged, who are able to carry on the struggle for civil and human rights worldwide.

further readings

Dallard, Shyrlee. 1990. Ella Baker: A Leader behind the Scenes. Parsippany, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press.


School Desegregation; Voting.

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Ella Josephine Baker

Ella Josephine Baker

American activist Ella Baker (1903-1986) was the consummate organizer and unsung brains behind many of the most effective African American civil rights and political organizations in the twentieth century.

Ella Baker's democratic vision and grass-roots activism left an indelible imprint on African American civil rights and political movements in the twentieth-century. She was regarded as a brilliant strategist, a radical intellectual, and superb organizer. Her political legacy forever linked criticisms of racism and gender-based discrimination to criticisms of capitalism and social imperialism. She combined liberation rhetoric with direct activism, and developed strong internal structures that made organizational growth and progress possible. Baker was a proponent of the "under class," and believed "ordinary" people could become political leaders. An article in Black Scholar attributed her low profile in the civil rights movement to her preference of taking political directives from the poor and working class, rather than civil rights elites, some of whom marginalized her and the importance of her contributions. Baker considered herself a facilitator, rather than a leader and she believed in the strength and power of the common man to help themselves.

Political activism began shaping her life in Harlem during the Great Depression. She helped found and eventually became coordinator, and then director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL), which organized stores and buying clubs to achieve economic self-sufficiency among the African American community. This experience, along with that of writing about New York City's African American domestics, deepened her understanding of the relationship between politics and economic exploitation of people according to gender, race, and class. She went on to establish a grass-roots field network for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), becoming a national leader in the 1940s. She became the first director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1950s and was a founder of and adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. She worked well into her 70s with numerous political organizations to further social and racial justice. Baker was always striving to form a bridge among different socio-economic groups to foster communication and cooperation.

A Heritage of Strength

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in Littleton, North Carolina, Ella Josephine Baker was the middle child of educated parents who were active participants in community life. Black Scholar describes her early years as somewhat protected and privileged. She was part of a close-knit racially proud family, whose ancestors had been community leaders with a southern African American tradition of cooperating with and helping one another that was carried on by her family. They were not wealthy, but were able to send her to Shaw boarding school in Raleigh for high school-there was no secondary school in Littleton. She excelled academically, and continued her education at Shaw University, a conservative institution with a "classical" curriculum of literature, philosophy, foreign languages, and mathematics. Her sense of social justice began to form while she was a student; she led several protests against strict rules, such as not being allowed to wear silk stockings on campus. She majored in sociology, and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1927.

A Time of Testing

Full of energy, idealism, and possibilities, she rejected an offer to teach school realizing that mostly white school boards would control her future. Instead, on the eve of the Great Depression, she moved to New York City-worlds apart from the confines of university life. She was appalled by the suffering, poverty, and hunger, as well as the sense of desperation that hung over the streets of Harlem. Her first job was as a waitress. Rather than succumb to exploitation, she started organizing with others for jobs and helped found The Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL) as a means to help people save money and gain economic power by buying collectively. As a group organizer, she learned firsthand the devastation caused by the Depression. Elected to be the YNCL's first national director, she viewed the organization as a proving ground for communalism and interdependency. Such groups were branded as radical because they embraced socialism and some forms of communism; in fact, the YNCL resembled Baker's memory of the cooperative community environment in which she grew up. The YNCL was based on democratic principles, for men and women alike, and its leaders were drawn from the membership.

Throughout the 1930s Baker was involved in numerous organizations, but a few were particularly influential in her development as a social activist. One was the Workers Education Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There, in addition to teaching subjects that enabled people to re-enter the workforce, she came in contact with left-wing activists and the growing union movement. Others, such as the Women's Day Workers and Industrial League, a union for domestic workers; the Harlem Housewives Cooperative; and the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), brought her in touch with her identity as an African American woman. She began to consider how social, political, and government structures exploited race, and refused to be classified as anything other than a "person." Even in marriage she did not assume her husband's last name, an act that was considered highly unusual in the 1930s. She commented, "I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control. It wasn't an easy lesson for me to learn, but I was able to learn it. It was out of that context that I began to explore; more in the area of ideology and the theory of social change…. I began to confront poverty, to identify to some extent with the unemployed…"

Oppression on the Block

Baker had the opportunity to see people's lives from many different venues, including that of a reporter. In 1935 she co-authored with Marvel Cooke an exposé on the precarious situations of African-American domestic workers. Entitled "The Bronx Slave Market," the sexual and racial exploitation unique to African American women was described. Both writers posed as domestics looking for jobs in the "slave marts," auction blocks where day workers negotiated wages, as part of their research. With 15 million Americans without jobs and savings, the Depression intensified the poverty conditions tying African Americans to domestic service. Wages ranged from 15 to 30 cents an hour. In desperation, African Americans turned to the federal government for assistance, which although it provided a safety net for some, failed to include domestic work in most legislation-and did nothing to establish a basic wage. The dehumanizing experience of facing derision from "respectable" wage earners, as well as fraudulent employment agencies that bilked workers' wages, lead Baker to conclude that economic justice should be the primary objective in political struggles. According to Black Scholar, her labor activism placed "work" central to critiques of racism, classism, and sexism; and made the struggles against racism and sexism indispensable to dismantling economic oppression.

Into the Mainstream

In 1940, Baker started working with the NAACP as a field secretary and from 1943-1946 as director of branches criss-crossing the south and establishing a vast network of contacts. Baker disagreed with the NAACP's reliance on legal approaches to combat discrimination, advocating instead a strategy that would involve the entire membership. Also impatient with the organization's bureaucracy, she resigned, but volunteered as president of the New York branch.

In the 1950s, her interests turned to the growing southern civil rights movement. Along with two friends, she founded In Friendship, an organization that raised money to help organizations, such as the Montgomery Improvement Association, which coordinated the bus boycott, as well as needy individuals who lost property in retribution for their participation. The advent of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was formed to maximize the momentum generated by the Montgomery boycott, rendered the smaller organization unnecessary. Baker joined the SCLC as its first director working along side Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even though they had differences of opinion on leadership issues. For two years she coordinated the SCLC's voter rights campaign, called Crusade for Citizenship, expanded grass-roots participation, and ran the office. Eventually, however, she resigned due to her strong belief that the organization was relying too heavily on King's persona to mobilize people.

Coincidentally, about the same time, students in Greensboro, North Carolina, led a successful desegregation sit-in. Baker immediately shifted her attention to maximizing this new activism among African-American students, and took a job with the local YWCA in order to be nearby and involved. Under her direction, a new independent youth organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was formed as an alternative to more politically moderate organizations. Egalitarian in structure, it was based on grass-roots democracy managed on a local level, which gave women, young people, and the poor a chance to become leaders. This organization epitomized Baker's philosophy of sharing knowledge and skills with others, which PBS later captured in a documentary, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker. Fundi is a Swahili word meaning "one who hands down a craft from one generation to another."

Black Scholar noted that the SNCC distinguished itself by using mass direct-action tactics and by going into rural areas of the Deep South, where racism and violence were worst. The SNCC lead a wave of sit-in demonstrations throughout the South and became one of the most effective student movements in US history. It remained an independent organization, declining to become affiliated with the SCLC, a decision supported by Baker that reinforced her split with the SCLC.

Baker taught people not to be ashamed of their race, made them believe in themselves, and understand the power of unity. Behind the scenes and out of the limelight, she nurtured generations of African Americans to keep the spirit of freedom going. While she was content to work in supportive roles, she urged African American women to take up their struggle for equality. She explained the social environment of the 1950s and 1960s: "The movement … was carried largely by women, since it came out of church groups. It was sort of second nature to women to play a supportive role…. [I]t's true that the number of women who carried the movement is much larger than that of men. Black women have had to carry this role, and I think the younger women are insisting on an equal footing." Always a pioneer, Baker anticipated and encouraged the next wave of social activism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Baker's later years were spent advising countless organizations. She was an organizer who identified with all people, and who sought to create change by empowering people to act on their own behalf. Ella Baker died in New York, New York in 1986 and left behind a legacy that lived well beyond her eighty-three years.

Further Reading

Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Carlson Publishing, 1993.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

Papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954-1970, University Publications of America, 1995.

Black Scholar, Fall, 1994.

Journal of Black Studies, May, 1996.

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