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Baker, Ella J.

Baker, Ella J.

December 13, 1903
December 13, 1986

The activist Ella Josephine Baker was a leading figure in the struggle of African Americans for equality. In the 1960s she was regarded as the godmother of the civil rights movement, or, as one activist put it, "a Shining Black Beacon." Though she was not accorded recognition by the media, Baker was affiliated with all the major civil rights

organizations of her time, and she worked closely with all the better-known leaders of the movement.

Ella Baker was the daughter of a grade-school teacher and a waiter on the Norfolk-Washington ferry, and the granddaughter of slaves. From the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived on land her grandfather had purchased from the owners of the plantation on which they had worked as slaves, Baker acquired a sense of community, a profound sense of the need for sharing, and a sense of history and of the continuity of struggle. She also gained a fierce sense of independence and a belief in the necessity of rebellion, which guided her work for the rest of her life.

After leaving Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, from which she graduated as valedictorian, Baker immersed herself in the cause of social justice. She moved to New York, where she continued her education on the streets of the city, attending all kinds of political meetings to absorb the intellectual atmosphere. In the 1930s, while earning her living working in restaurants and as a correspondent for several black newspapers, Baker helped to found the Young Negroes Cooperative League, of which she became executive director. She worked for the Work Projects Administration (WPA; originally Works Progress Administration),teaching consumer and labor education. During the depression, Baker learned that, in her words, "a society could break down, a social order could break down, and the individual is the victim of the breakdown, rather than the cause of it."

In 1940 Baker accepted a position as field secretary at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She soon established regional leadership-training conferences, using the slogan "Give light and the people will find a way." While a national officer, Baker traveled for several months a year throughout the country (concentrating on the segregated South), building NAACP membership and working with the local people who would become the sustaining forces of the civil rights movement. Her organizing strategy was to stress local issues rather than national ones and to take the NAACP to people, wherever they were. She ventured into beer gardens and nightclubs, where she would address crowds and secure memberships and campaign workers. Baker was named director of branches in 1943, but, frustrated by the top-down approach of the NAACP leadership, she resigned in 1946. During this period she married a former classmate, Thomas Roberts, and took on the responsibility of raising her sister's daughter, Jacqueline.

From 1946 to 1957, while working in New York City for the New York Cancer Society and the New York Urban League, Baker participated in campaigns to desegregate New York City schools. She was a founder of In Friendship, a group organized to support school desegregation in the South; a member of the zoning subcommittee of the New York City Board of Education's committee on integration; and president (and later education director) of the New York City branch of the NAACP.

In 1957 Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, advisers to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., asked Baker to return to the South to set up the office of the newly organized Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by King, and to organize the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter-registration drive. Intending to stay six weeks, she remained with the SCLC for two years, serving variously as acting director, associate director, and executive director.

In 1960 Baker mobilized SCLC support for a meeting to bring together the student sitin protest groups that had sprung up across the South. A battle for control of the sitin movement ensued. Older civil rights organizations, particularly the SCLC, sought to make the new movement a youth arm of their own operations. Baker, however, advocated an independent role for the student activists.

Baker resigned from the SCLC in 1960 to accept a part-time position as human-relations consultant to the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), working with colleges across the South to further integration. In 1963 she joined the staff of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a regionwide interracial organization that put special emphasis on developing white support for racial justice. While affiliated with the YWCA and SCEF, Baker devoted much of her time to the fledgling Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in which she found the embodiment of her belief in a "group-centered leadership, rather than a leadershipcentered group."

SNCC was the "new community" Baker had sought. Her work was an inspiration for other activist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the antiVietnam War movement and the feminist movement. But Baker's greatest contribution was her counseling of SNCC. During one crisis she pointed out that both direct action and voter registration would lead to the same resultconfrontation and resolution. Her support of confrontation was at variance with the Kennedy administration's policy, which advocated a "cooling-off" period. Baker also counseled the young mavericks of SNCC to work with the more conservative southern ministers, who, she advised, had resources that could help them.

In 1964, SNCC was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sent its own delegation to Atlantic City to challenge the seating of the segregationist Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Baker, in the new party's Washington headquarters (and later in Atlantic City), orchestrated the MFDP's fight for the support of other state delegations in its claim to Mississippi's seats. This challenge eventually resulted in the adoption of new Democratic Party rules that guaranteed the inclusion of blacks and women in future delegations.

After the convention, Baker moved back to New York, where she remained active in human-rights affairs. During her life she had been a speaker at hundreds of Women's Day church meetings across the country, a participant in tenants' associations, a consultant to the wartime Office of Price Administration, an adviser to the Harlem Youth Council, and a founder and administrator of the Fund for Education and Legal Defense. In her later years she worked with such varied groups as the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, the Episcopal Church Center, and the Third World Women's Coordinating Committee.

While never professing a political ideology, Baker consistently held views far to the left of the established civil rights leadership. She was never a member of a political party, but she did run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket in 1951. She acted within the constraints of a radical critique of society and was drawn toward "radical" rather than "safe" solutions to societal problems. Her credo was "a life that is important is a life of service."

See also Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


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Cantarow, Ellen, with Susan Gushee O'Malley and Sharon Hartman Strom. Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Reprint, 2001.

Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York:Macmillan, 1972.

Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

Grant, Joanne. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Grant, Joanne. "Mississippi Politics: A Day in the Life of Ella J. Baker." In The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: New American Library, 1970, pp. 5662.

Lerner, Gerda. Black Women in White America. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press, 1984.

Rawsby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

joanne grant (1996)
Updated bibliography

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