Baker, Ella Jo
Ella Jo Baker
BORN: December 13, 1903 • Norfolk, Virginia
American civil rights activist
Ella Jo Baker was one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement in twentieth-century America. She worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and other prominent leaders of the era, but avoided the spotlight herself. Instead she worked behind the scenes, and on several fronts. Her most important achievement was the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This youth group, made up of both black and white activists, used nonviolent direct actions, such as the sit-in, to protest racial segregation in the South.
"The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders."
Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, but raised in the rural community of Littleton, North Carolina. Her father was a waiter in the dining car of a ferryboat. Her mother, Georgianna, was a teacher, who hoped that her bright, strong-minded daughter would follow that career path, too. As a young woman, Baker entered Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Shaw was one of the historically black colleges founded after the end of slavery to provide educational opportunities for newly freed blacks. At Shaw, Baker was an outstanding student and graduated in 1927 as class valedictorian, the student with the highest level of academic achievement.
Baker realized that she did not want to become a teacher. She knew that it was not a career in which she could freely express her opinions, especially as a black woman. She hoped to travel instead and help others, and thought about becoming a medical missionary or a social worker. Both occupations required graduate school training, however, which she could not afford. She moved to New York City instead and settled in its thriving African American community. Called Harlem, the area was undergoing a black cultural renaissance. The "Harlem Renaissance" was centered in Harlem and other urban cities in the 1920s and was characterized by the production of an immense body of literature by black artists in all areas, including fiction, poetry, journalism, and nonfiction. Baker worked for two newspapers, the American West Indian News and the Negro National News, between 1929 and 1932, and became active in African American political circles.
Through her newspaper work, Baker met George Samuel Schuyler (1895–1977), a prominent black journalist who wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country's most respected black newspapers. Politically conservative, Schuyler was the author of a scornful 1926 article about the Harlem Renaissance titled "The Negro-Art Hokum." In the piece, Schuyler denied the existence of a truly black American form of art. But he and Baker shared the same ideas about economic independence for their community. She helped organize the Young Negroes' Cooperative League, a consumers' organization, in the 1930s. A cooperative, or co-op, is a club in which members pool their funds to purchase goods in bulk. Baker served as its national director for six years. She became skilled at running the operation, negotiating bulk food deals, and even showing other communities how to start their own co-ops.
Because of her experience, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired her to serve as a consumer education project teacher. The WPA was a federal program created in the 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). It provided jobs to thousands of unemployed during the economically devastating Great Depression (1929–41). The consumer branch was just one of its many divisions.
In the late 1930s, Baker began working full-time for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which, founded in 1909, was the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. She was an assistant field secretary for four years, traveling extensively to organize new NAACP chapters. In some parts of the Deep South that she visited—states like Arkansas and Mississippi, for example—being a member of any civil rights group could be dangerous and even fatal. At that time, the South still practiced segregation, or separation, of the races. This meant that blacks and whites went to separate schools, used separate restrooms, ate in separate sections of restaurants, rode in different sections of buses or trains, and the like. Under segregation, the best facilities were reserved for whites. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret organization of pro-segregation white males, was strong in many parts of the South. For years, members of the KKK had harassed and terrorized blacks they regarded as too vocal and not keeping "in their place."
In 1942 Baker became the national field secretary and director of branches for the NAACP. She left the job four years later when she became the guardian of her young niece and needed to remain closer to her New York City home. She had also grown disillusioned with the NAACP. Although the organization was respected and growing, Baker felt its executive leadership was becoming increasingly out of touch with the needs of working-class blacks. She had hoped to re-energize the NAACP through its Youth Councils, but was passed over twice when the youth director's post became vacant. Baker also knew from her travels that the NAACP's membership was as diverse as the African American community itself, but its local leaders had little input into the organization's goals or policies. At the time, the NAACP's strategies were focused on legal challenges in the courts to end segregation. Baker thought this was an out-of-date game plan from an earlier era. She believed that more direct and attention-getting action was necessary.
Back in New York City, Baker founded the Harlem branch of the American Cancer Society in 1947 and spent seven years working for it. When Baker's niece was in her late teens, Baker returned to the NAACP, this time as president of the New York City branch. She later chaired the NAACP's Educational Committee. Through both of these roles, she became active in the movement to fully desegregate the New York City public school system in the mid-1950s. This was just after the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), which ruled that separate schools and school districts for African American students were unconstitutional. Although New York City schools were not technically segregated, the neighborhoods were largely divided by race, which therefore divided the district into black and white schools. New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. appointed Baker to his commission on school integration.
Montgomery bus boycott
Baker still saw the need for a stronger movement to bring full equality to the African American community. Frustrated with the inaction of her northern-based civil rights allies, Baker finally found her mission in Alabama with the Montgomery bus boycott in late 1955. The boycott began after an African American woman named Rosa Parks (1913–2005) refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider. This act of civil disobedience led to her arrest. In response, African Americans began a boycott of the bus system. This consumer-based protest was a historic first and fueled the civil rights movement. Blacks in Montgomery walked to work or school or shared rides for more than a year as the boycott continued. Parks challenged the arrest and her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually ruled against the bus company and its segregated seating policy.
In Montgomery, Baker served as an adviser to the leadership of the boycott, which centered around a new group that called itself the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It was headed by a young Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr. Baker teamed with renowned labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) and others to set up a fundraising arm for the MIA called "In Friendship." The group raised money for the cause and helped fund ride-share programs during the 381-day boycott. It also provided funds to pay the legal fees that occurred when police harassed the boycott's leaders.
In early 1957, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Georgia. This was a partnership among black ministers across the South who united to promote civil rights issues and end racist laws in many southern communities that restricted daily life for blacks. Although King was the group's founder, Baker essentially ran the SCLC during its first few years of existence as associate director and as interim, or temporary, director. Her original plan had been to remain with the organization for just six weeks, but no one else could be found for the job whose talents matched hers. Her organizational skills and ability to coordinate policy and action among its sixty-five affiliates was unrivaled, and she remained on the job until 1960.
Once again, as with her NAACP role, Baker found herself in the midst of some internal battles with the SCLC. Its leadership was male, as were the church ministers, and sometimes they had difficulty taking orders from a woman or even listening to her suggestions. Baker had hoped to see more direct action, which seemed slow in coming until a new form of protest called the sit-in began occurring in some southern cities. Sit-ins involved groups of black and white students joining together to protest segregated public facilities such as lunch counters, restaurants, and movie theaters. During a sit-in, the students entered such businesses, demanded equal service for all, and refused to leave until that happened.
From sit-ins to voter registration
When Baker learned of these sit-ins, she invited their leaders to a conference at her former college, Shaw University. A series of meetings took place in April 1960 and resulted in the formal founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). There was some talk of bringing the leaders of the sit-ins into the SCLC, but Baker firmly believed that the younger, more daring generation of civil rights activists worked better on their own. Thanks to Baker's efforts, the SCLC gave the new group an $800 check to help get it up and running. The two would be entirely separate organizations, though united in their goals. Baker resigned from the SCLC to serve as an adviser to the SNCC, though she was in her mid-fifties by then. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Baker had little problem communicating with a younger generation of activists.
Once the sit-in movement was underway, Baker turned her energies to voter registration in the South. African American males had been granted the right to vote in 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Women had received the right to vote in 1920 under the Nineteenth Amendment. However, black men and black women faced unfair discrimination from white election officials. Many communities made it nearly impossible for blacks to register to vote in local, state, and national elections. An organized effort was made with the help of northern activists to eliminate those barriers. During this period, Baker worked for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Atlanta, Georgia, as a human relations consultant. She also held a staff position with the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), another civil rights group that worked closely with the SNCC during the early 1960s.
In 1964 Baker became involved in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). This political organization, launched with the SNCC's help, was made up of black and white Mississippians as an alternative to the state Democratic Party organization. Traditional Democrats in the state were committed to segregation. They were by then in deep disagreement with the national party leadership. This break
Fannie Lou Hamer became an unofficial spokesperson for the civil rights movement in 1964 when she appeared before the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in New Jersey. A member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), she spoke to the committee about the problems she had faced as an African American woman when trying to register to vote. Her nationally televised testimony shocked many Americans. She spoke about the brutal assault she suffered in police custody because she had helped other blacks register.
Born in 1917 in Mississippi, she was the last of twenty children in her family. She grew up in a wooden shack with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Her parents were sharecroppers—they farmed a piece of land owned by a white neighbor for low pay. Having little formal schooling, Hamer began picking cotton as a child to help her family. In her mid-twenties, she married Perry Hamer, another sharecropper.
Hamer and her husband adopted two daughters. She was unable to have children of her own because she was forced to have her uterus (where the fetus develops) removed by a local doctor. This surgical procedure was sometimes forced on poor, uneducated black women in order to prevent them from becoming pregnant. Blacks in Mississippi suffered many other human rights violations during this era as well. They were almost entirely powerless and had no political voice. Although black men gained the right to vote in 1870, state and local laws made it difficult for blacks in most southern states to even register to vote. They had to be sponsored by a white person, or pass a difficult literacy test, plus pay an expensive poll tax dating back to the year they turned twenty-one.
Among those working to change this situation were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Activists from these groups came to Ruleville, Mississippi, Hamer's hometown, in 1962. She attended their rally and became one of eighteen volunteers who went to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to vote. She failed the test twice, which meant she was then required to interpret a section of the state constitution. She finally passed the test in 1963. She then helped others study for the test. But her activism cost her and her husband their jobs. Their white landlord expelled them from his property when he learned of Hamer's actions involving voter registration.
Hamer was hired by the SNCC as a field secretary. In June 1963, while returning home from an SNCC conference in South Carolina, the bus carrying Hamer and other activists stopped in Winona, Mississippi. There, the group was arrested. Hamer was taken to jail, where white police officers put her in a cell with two black men and ordered them to whip her with a leather strap. In a climate of fear in which black men often died in police custody, they obeyed. Hamer suffered permanent kidney damage and lost the sight in one eye. Later, the U.S. Justice Department filed a suit against the Winona law enforcement officers, but they were found not guilty by an all-white jury.
Hamer and Ella Jo Baker became involved in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The political group sought to challenge the racist attitudes of the state's Democratic Party. In 1964 Hamer traveled to New Jersey to attend the Democratic National Convention as a representative of the MFDP, which was popular among black and liberal-minded white Mississippians. They requested seats at the convention as delegates. However, to be allowed in, they had to go before the convention's credentials committee. In her testimony, which was broadcast on television and radio, Hamer described the harassment and beating she had suffered because of her voting rights work. Her account horrified many Americans who knew little about what life was like for blacks in the Deep South.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended the restrictions that African Americans and other minorities faced when registering to vote. Hamer remained active in Mississippi politics and devoted herself to helping the poor. She died in March 1977 of cancer at age fifty-nine.
in the party came because President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69), was beginning to give his support to the civil rights cause. Baker was the keynote speaker at the MFDP's convention in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, then went to Washington to organize its office there.
The year 1964 was an important one in the civil rights movement. In early July, President Johnson, a democrat, signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. Several weeks later, representatives from the MFDP went to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and asked to be allowed to participate. National party leaders did not want to let them in, fearing that supporting them would further anger white southern Democrats who opposed civil rights legislation. Nevertheless, the MFDP's challenge to Mississippi party officials was said to have been instrumental in securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to the act, many blacks in the South had been required to pay a tax or take a literacy test to be able to register to vote. The act outlawed those restrictions and ordered federal supervision of voter registration in districts that had less than 50 percent of their eligible voters officially registered.
The behind-the-scenes leader
Although many of the legal challenges to full black participation in the social, political, and economic life of the nation seemed to have been successfully conquered with the passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts, Baker's work was far from over. She was involved in a number of other political causes after she returned to Harlem, and she worked with a new radical group, the National Interim Committee for a Mass Party of the People, in the early 1970s. She also advised the African National Congress, which worked to end apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a government authorized legal system of racial discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. Known as "Fundi," a Swahili term for a person who learns a craft and passes it on to the next generation, Baker was the subject of a 1981 documentary film of the same name. She died in New York City on her eighty-third birthday, on December 13, 1986.
One of Baker's most significant legacies was her belief that civil rights groups and other organizations working for social change should avoid having too much focus on one person in a leadership role. This could backfire, she argued, because a powerful and attention-getting figure would be a media-created sensation, which also meant that the media could someday turn against that person. For this reason, while the SCLC became nearly identified as one and the same with King, Baker's SNCC operated equally effectively despite her backstage role. "You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me," she once said, according to her New York Times obituary. "The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders."
For More Information
Burns, Stewart. To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America, 1955–1968. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2004.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Fraser, C. Gerald. "Ella Baker, Organizer for Groups in Civil-Rights Movement in South." New York Times (December 17, 1986).
Kinnon, Joy Bennett. "Shine Your Light." Ebony (July 2004): p. 44.
McCabe, Suzanne. "'Is This America?' The Story of Fannie Lou Hamer." Junior Scholastic (March 7, 2005): p. 16.
Sullivan, Lisa Y. "Ella Baker." Social Policy (winter 1999): p.54.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. http://www.ellabakercenter.org/index.html (accessed on June 26, 2006).
Hamer, Fannie Lou. "Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention." Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches. American Public Media. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/flhamer.html (accessed on June 26, 2006).