Baker, Ella 1903–1986
Ella Josephine Baker was a leading radical democracy crusader, adviser, organizer for social justice, and a key figure in U.S. civil rights activism. As a civil rights activist from the 1930s onward, she fought racism and oppression in its many forms, both in America and around the world, particularly in Africa. She was a central figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 13, 1903, Ella Jo was the second of three surviving children of Georgianna (Anna) Ross Baker and Blake Baker. She repeatedly credited her mother as her guiding influence, particularly in the black Baptist tradition of directing women, no less than men, to take personal responsibility for doing good works. After the 1910 Norfolk race riot, the seven-year-old Ella—along with her mother, her older brother Blake Curtis, and her younger sister Maggie— moved to Littleton, North Carolina, where her parents had grown up.
The church was the center of this rural black community. Her mother and grandmother were active in the church, and her grandfather, Ross Baker, a black Baptist preacher, had been a church leader until his death in 1909. Thus, early in her life, Ella Jo learned lessons of a hard-working leadership of service in a respectful community of equals.
Education was a key tenet of Baker’s family belief in cooperative Christian uplift. In 1918, after attending grammar school in Littleton, the fourteen-year-old Ella was sent to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend Shaw University, a historically black college affiliated with the Baptist Church. Here, she attended both the institution’s normal school and the college. She graduated in 1927 with a bachelor of arts, and as the class valedictorian she exhorted her classmates to “accept this noble challenge of salvaging the strong ship of civilization by the anchors of right, justice and love.”
Baker considered doing graduate work in sociology, and she also harbored hopes of becoming a medical missionary, which she viewed as an ideal means of productive personal service in what she called “the uplift of the fallen humanity.” Money was an issue, however, as the late 1920s economic downturn collapsed into the Great Depression, putting further schooling out of her reach. Rather than heading for the University of Chicago, as she once hoped, Baker went to stay with her cousin Martha Grinage in New York City’s Harlem. She waited tables, took factory jobs, and learned about the new mix of people she encountered. The need for fundamental social reform became ever more palpable to her, and she put her considerable talents to work espousing wrongs and advocating rights. She was determined for people to see things as they were, so information and insight were ever important to her. In 1928 she organized a Negro History Club at Harlem’s 135th Street YMCA. She served on the editorial staff of the American West Indian News from 1929 to 1930 before joining the Negro National News, where she worked until 1932.
Understanding the value of collective economic power, Baker joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, where she urged collective and selective buying. She continued advocating this approach as an employee of the federal Works Progress Administration, which she joined after its creation in May 1935. Then, in 1938, she became a field organizer for the NAACP. Traveling around the South, she raised money and recruited members. She eventually became a field secretary and in 1943 national director of branches. She had a hand also in the 1940 founding of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Everywhere she went, Ella connected with the people—she knew every-one, and everyone knew her. But she was a woman, and the male-dominated national NAACP hierarchy bristled at her brashness. In 1946 she left the NAACP national office to work for school desegregation in New York City. She became the local NAACP branch president there in 1952, and she ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal Party candidate for New York City Council in 1953.
Campaigning against racism and segregation, Baker spent time in the South after the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott success in Alabama. She worked with Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., and others in 1957 to form the SCLC and develop its voter registration drive, “Crusade for Citizenship.” She served as SCLC interim executive director until April 1960. But she again bumped heads with a male hierarchy. The SCLC dropped “interim” from the job title of Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, the man who replaced her.
Before leaving the SCLC, Baker convinced its other leaders to allow youth independence in the civil rights movement. She organized a Youth Leadership Conference at her alma mater, Shaw University, on Easter weekend 1960. The immediate result was SNCC, where Baker went to work helping to arrange the 1960 sit-ins and the 1961 freedom rides. She worked also with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the interracial Southern Conference Educational Fund to further integration in southern higher education.
Working with SNCC, Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and she delivered the keynote address at its 1964 state convention in Jackson. Again confronting the political mainstream with its hierarchical and segregated local and national parties, Baker orchestrated the interracial MFDP delegation’s challenge to Mississippi’s old-line, lily-white delegation at the National Democratic Party’s 1964 Atlantic City convention. In the credentialing battle, Baker helped secure new party rules to insure seating blacks and women as future delegates.
Bucking the established hierarchy seldom made Baker politically popular or put her in good stead with national leaders, whether it was President John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. Her backing of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s similarly distanced her from broad popular acceptance. But she was never interested in the limelight. She was interested in helping people solve problems.
Baker’s group-centered, direct-action approach to social change through participatory democracy infused a broad range of organizations, from SNCC to the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Her work endeared her to many, particularly SNCC veterans, as the “godmother of civil rights.” Preaching and teaching people empowerment, she insisted on the value of grassroots development and action as the truest solutions to social problems. She dismissed “great leader” schemes, believing effective change arose from what she described as “group-centered leadership, rather than a leadership-centered group.” Her mantra was “give light and people will find a way.”
While unsung on the national stage, Baker stood as a heroic model of selfless service for racial and social justice. She lived her credo that “a life that is important is a life of service.” In her later years she spread her aid and assistance ever more broadly, working with groups ranging from the Harlem Youth Council to the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee and the Third World Women’s Coordinating Committee. But her activities were increasingly limited by Alzheimer’s disease. She died in New York City on December 13, 1986, her eighty-third birthday. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996 in Oakland, California, carries forward her name in a mission of direct-action grassroots organizing and mobilizing against human rights abuses.
SEE ALSO NAACP.
Barker-Benfield, G. J., and Catherine Clinton. 1991. Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Cantarow, Ellen, Susan Gushee O’Malley, and Sharon Hartman Strom. 1980. Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Grant, Joanne. 1998. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. New York: Wiley.
Morris, Aldon. 1984. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press.
Ransby, Barbara. 2003. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Thomas J. Davis