This week’s open thread has highlighted the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. These were folks you wouldn’t find in your high school or college history textbook, but they are very important.
“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” (1964)
Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist beginning in the 1930s. She was a behind-the-scenes activist, whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses.
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised by Georgiana and Blake Baker, her parents. When she was seven, her family moved to her mother’s hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Baker’s grandmother had been enslaved and was whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master. Also Baker was very close with her grandpa. They had a special relationship.
Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduating as class valedictorian in 1927 at the age of 24. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating, she moved to New York City. During 1929-1930 she was an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News, going on to take the position of editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1930 George Schuyler, then a black journalist and anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League (YNCL), which sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined in 1931 and soon became the group’s national director
Baker’s statement advocates a more collectivist model of leadership over the “prevailing messianic style of the period”. In essence, what Baker was largely arguing against was the Civil Rights Movement mirroring the organization model of the Black church. The Black church, at the time, had largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, but also that of the Black church.
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was hired in December 1940 as a secretary. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local campaigns. She was named director of branches in 1943, making her the highest ranking woman in the organization. She was an outspoken woman with a strong belief in egalitarian ideals. She pushed the organization to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns on the local level. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization. While traveling throughout the South on behalf of the NAACP, Baker met hundreds of black people and solidified and establish lasting, enduring relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach to political work was one important aspect of Baker’s effort to recruit more members, men and women, into the NAACP. She also advocated for giving greater responsibility and autonomy to local branches. Between 1944 and 1946, Baker directed revolutionary leadership conferences in several major cities such as Chicago and Atlanta. She got top officials to deliver lectures, offer welcoming remarks, and conduct workshops. She resigned in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket
In January 1957, Baker went to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed.
In 1964 she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. She worked as the coordinator of the Washington office of the MFDP and accompanied a delegation of the MFDP to the National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964. The group’s aim was to challenge the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans to participate in party elections in the South.
From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), which aimed to help black and white people work together for social justice; an interracial desegregation and human rights group based in the South. In SCEF, Baker worked closely with her friend, longtime white anti-racist activist Anne Braden, who had been accused of being a communist during the 1950s by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Baker viewed socialism as a more humane alternative to capitalism but she had mixed feelings about communism.
That same year, Ella Baker returned to New York, where she continued her activism. She later collaborated with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. She remained an activist until her death in 1986.
It is widely written that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other SCLC members, differed in opinion and philosophy. She once claimed that the “movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement”. Another speech she made, in which she urged activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with “heavy feet of clay”, was widely interpreted as a denunciation of King.
Ella Baker was a notoriously private person. People close to her did not know that she was married for twenty years to T. J. “Bob” Roberts. She left no diaries. The 1981 documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, directed by Joanne Grant, revealed her important role in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 2009 Ella Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.