By Anne Adams
Though the average American of her era or even today has probably never heard of Ella Josephine Baker, beginning in the 1930s and for 5 decades, she was an important figure in the struggle for equal rights. Also, as a “behind the scenes” advocate for reform, she worked with more familiar names like W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and of course Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ella Baker was born in 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia and when she was age 9 her family moved to rural North Carolina. Her grandmother, a former slave who had been whipped because she refused to marry the man selected by her owner, relayed stories of slave revolts that greatly impressed the child. Ella later attended Shaw University in Raleigh, founded in 1865 as the first historically black college in the south. She graduated as valedictorian in 1927, and even as a student she challenged what she saw as unfair school policies. Then Ella moved to New York City to join the vibrant black community that became an important force in literature, politics and culture of the period. After serving on the staffs of the Negro National News and other publications, in 1931 she joined another black journalist/activist named George Schuyler who founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, an organization seeking to encourage black economic power. That year she became the organization’s national director.
As she became more involved in the culture and politics of 1930s Harlem, Ella taught history courses for the Worker’s Education Project as part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency. She was among the protestors of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and of the injustice of the “Scottsboro Boys” – several young black men who were accused of raping white women in the South, charges considered strictly racial in origin. Ella founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem library and continued her education with lectures at the YWCA. Throughout this time she befriended and worked with many prominent future activists.
Then in 1938 she became active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and became a secretary with the organization in 1941. In 1943 she became a branch director of the NAAC, the highest ranking woman in the group. When Ella traveled through the South as part of her work, she had a unique ability to treat the people there with a genuine civility that greatly assisted her ability to recruit new members – particularly young people – to the organization and its purposes. She resigned in 1946 for a family matter, but remained active in the New York organization working on various issues. In 1953 she unsuccessfully ran for city council for the Liberal Party.
In 1957 Ella Baker became involved in the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she was employed as their first staff person as they began a voter registration campaign.
In 1960 after black students began “sit-in” protests to speed desegregation of restaurants, Ella Baker encouraged university students to attend a SCLC conference and from this association came the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sometimes dubbed “snick”). She later became completely identified with SNCC and assisted other civil rights organizations by coordinating the “Freedom Rides” that sought to desegregate interstate bus travel. In his work with reform organization, Ella preferred to involve many individuals instead of a single leader. One source quoted her as believing that “people under the heel [those most oppressed] had to be the ones to decide what action they were going take to get (out) from under their oppression.” Her concept of group leadership in the work for social change spread throughout other reform movements.
In 1964 she was one of the organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was an alternative to the all-white Democratic Party of Mississippi and went with a delegation to the party convention in 1964. Though the MFDP delegates unsuccessfully challenged the official Democratic delegation their influence helped elect more black candidates in the south in the years to come.
Ella Baker returned to New York in 1964 to continue her organizing activism, and then traveled the country in 1972 in support of fellow activist Angela Davis, as well as opposing South Africa apartheid. She died in 1986.
Ella Baker reportedly differed with Martin Luther King Jr. and other reformers, as she urged more personal involvement in a cause, and not just reliance on a single leader. An intensely private person, Ella Baker was married for twenty years, a fact not widely known. Though controversial in both her tactics and her opinions, Ella Baker was a dynamic reformer with an intense drive to accomplish her purposes. Her struggle for the rights of individuals was not just for black Americans, but for others, too. As she put it: “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.