Celebrate the life of Ella Jo Baker, born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, raised in North Carolina. Much remains owed to Ella Baker, an unsung civil rights movement hero, who co-developed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker, a giant in the annals of social and civil rights, passed away on December 13, 1986, at 83. She combined the talents of a great organizer, leading intellectual, a great teacher and the wherewithal to inspire.
Her grandmother helped ignite her internal social justice activist organizing fire as she listened to her grandmother’s life under slavery. Baker’s maternal grandparents bought, lived on, and farmed the plantation of their enslavement.
Young Ella attended and graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student at Shaw University, she fought her school’s unfair policies and still became the class valedictorian upon graduation.
Baker, most renowned, stands out for her social justice works in SCLC and SNCC. However, she moved to New York City upon graduating from Shaw University in 1927. She worked with social activist organizations such as the Young Negroes Cooperative League and the Workers Education Project. Ella Baker toiled as a field secretary of the NAACP and then served as director of branches circa 1943 until 1953.
In January 1957, Baker attended a conference in Atlanta to help civil rights activist ministers to get a foothold on the civil rights movement. In February, SCLC got started. Its purpose was to build on the 1955 Montgomery Boycott. Dr. King became the head leader.
Baker became one of the lead organizers and associate directors of SCLC. She battled bureaucratic and parochial imbroglios. She worked with civil rights groups across the South. Baker facilitated voter registration campaigns and the like. The SCLC stressed voting rights with the anemic Civil Rights Act of 1957 to protect local voters. While the project failed to attain many of its goals, it placed the framework on constructing a mass voting rights movement.
Baker worked in Atlanta for around two and a half years as interim executive director. She had no natural allies in a male-dominated setting, similar to her NAACP days. While at SCLC, she remained unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. According to Thomas Jackson, Baker saw the SCLC program as sluggish. King didn’t get down to the grassroots. She saw him as a better orator than the leader he had become.
After the North Carolina A & T College Greensboro sit-ins, Baker left the SCLC. She saw new-infused youthful students as an asset and resource to the movement. She sought to help the new student activists at Shaw University. SNCC became the newborn baby at the Shaw University conference through her Southwide Youth Leadership Conference, which Baker founded.
Mukasa Willie Ricks, was a central SNCC student member. He remembers Baker as a go-getter for the new SNCC movement.
“She brought the youth together, SNCC created,” Ricks said. “She struggled for, and won for the SNCC to be independent with their civil rights assignments and a staff.
“She advised us to be organizers and with confidence. Ms. Baker, she was Ms. Baker.
“She is somebody who taught us to organize and to be confident. She was a great organizer. That was her gift.”
Ricks characterized Ella Jo Baker and the hundreds and thousands of others in the movement, both men and women, as “freedom fighters to free our people and to be willing to die and fight for the movement.”
According to the publisher, the author Barbara Ransby saw Baker’s moving and compelling biography Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision as a “complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries.” Baker’s biography paints a picture of Black’s struggle and fights for justice, blended in with worldwide efforts in the twentieth century.
Read Ransby’s book, please, as well as Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice, and On The Freedom Side.
“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…,” Baker said about organizing, according to the Center for Human rights.
Former Coppin State University Assistant Professor, Dr. Ken Morgan is an internationalist and Black rights activist. Reach him at [email protected]