Ella BakerAug 12th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1903-1986 Ella Josephine Baker worked with the leading civil rights activists of her time, and played a critical part in forming the organizational basis for the movement. Although her gender may have kept her from a more visible role, she remained a steadfast proponent of grass roots empowerment and social change.
Granddaughter of a Slave
Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, the second of three children of educated parents. At the age of nine, she moved with her mother Georgianna, her father Blake, and her siblings to Littleton, North Carolina, her mother’s hometown. Her grandmother, a former slave, told stories of her early life, including being whipped for refusing to marry the man chosen by her owner. Baker attended high school at a boarding school in Raleigh, and then studied at Shaw University in North Carolina, where she led protests against what she perceived as unfair regulations. She majored in sociology, graduated as class valedictorian in 1927, and then moved to New York City at the age of 24.
Her first job as a waitress gave her direct experience of the dire economic conditions of the time in Harlem. Then, after several years in editorial positions with black-oriented publications, Baker became acquainted with the African American journalist and activist George Schuyler, who founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League in 1930. Baker joined the League the following year, and quickly rose to become its national director, helping to create consumer cooperatives in response to the economic malaise of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, she also became deeply involved with the political and cultural ferment of Harlem, and befriended many of the rising leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1935, she co-authored “The Bronx Slave Market,” an expose of the frightful conditions, and gender and race discrimination, confronting African American domestic workers in New York, after masquerading as a domestic. During this period, Baker married, but in keeping with her evolving ideas of societal control and personal empowerment, she kept her maiden name.
Baker began an affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1938, and in 1941 joined the staff as a field secretary. She spent several years traveling widely, and especially throughout the south, helping with local organization, recruiting, and fund-raising, while developing her ideas of grass roots participation and group-centered leadership. She became the NAACP’s highest-ranking woman in 1943 as Director of Branches, and tried to move the organization toward a more decentralized structure, but with limited success.
In 1946, Baker resigned her position and returned to New York. There, she became active with the local NAACP branch, focusing on police brutality and school desegregation. She ultimately became the branch president in 1952, but stepped down in favor of an unsuccessful campaign for New York City Council in 1953. Then, in 1956, Baker joined with activists Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, the latter a close advisor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to form a group called In Friendship. This organization channeled donations from affluent patrons to civil rights initiatives, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended successfully that year under King’s leadership.
Strong People, Strong Leaders, Strong Women
After the success of the boycott, two conferences were convened with King’s support in early 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, with the goal of building a regional structure. Baker attended both meetings, and participated in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). That same year, she became the organization’s first staff appointment, and served as co-organizer, with Rustin, of the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, DC. In 1958, King asked Baker to take over the SCLC’s voter registration program, the Crusade for Citizenship. However, she was not considered for the role of executive director, which went to Reverend John Tilley. Baker came to feel that the SCLC, and to some extent King himself, were too male-oriented and too centralized in their power hierarchy. But she worked faithfully on behalf of the Conference, with special attention to local issues. When Tilley resigned, Baker stayed on in Atlanta as interim executive director until a permanent replacement was named in 1960.
By this time, her ideals of “participatory democracy” were fully formed. In Baker’s own words, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Inspired by desegregation sit-ins and other actions taken by black college students across the south in 1960, Baker convinced the SCLC to host students at a Southwide Youth Leadership Conference. The result was the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at which point Baker shifted her attention to the SNCC’s more egalitarian ethos and resigned from the SCLC.
She quickly became one of SNCC’s most valued adult advisors, and in 1961, worked with the organization and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to coordinate the “freedom rides” of students to the segregated south. Her work increasingly focused on grass roots engagement and empowerment, stating that those most oppressed “had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take….” Her vision of self-leadership and radical social change inspired such movement luminaries as Stokely Carmichael and Julian Bond, and Students for a Democratic Society, which became the seminal anti-war organization of the 1960s.
Baker also became engaged with a number of other important initiatives during the mid-1960s and 1970s. She served on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund from 1962 to 1967. And in 1964, she participated in the formation and coordination of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in response to the all-white pro-segregation composition of the Mississippi Democratic Party. The MFDP succeeded in forcing a party rule change allowing minorities and women to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.
Returning to New York that year, Baker lent her efforts to the campaign to release the imprisoned black radical Angela Davis. Other causes that benefited from her skills and passion included the movement for Puerto Rican independence, the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Baker’s personal life was so hidden behind her professional zeal that many of her closest associates didn’t know that she was married for 20 years. She remained active in support of social rights and justice until her death in New York City in 1986, leaving a legacy of commitment to full participatory democracy for all African Americans, all Americans, and all people.