Ella Baker is mother to many in the peacemakers’ family tree. I claim her as grandmother, because she shaped the life of George Lakey, who was one of my mentors. Yet, far too many women like Ella Baker are invisible in histories of the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. I confess that I wouldn’t have discovered this grandmother except that George Lakey insisted on retelling her story. Now I am sharing that story with you, and this may be the first moment you have ever seen her name. Remember Ella Baker and tell someone else.
Ella Baker (1903-1986)
“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you can change that system. That is easier said than done.”
At Ella Baker’s funeral in the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, long-time civil rights activist Bob Moses asked all those who considered themselves to be Ella’s children to come to the front of the church. Hundreds of people gathered at the front in testimony to the impact this woman had directly made on their lives. She wasn’t the most well-known name in the civil rights movement, but Baker probably did more than any single person to shape the substance of the movement and the lives of the activists who would change the course of U.S. history.
Ella Baker’s credo was that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” She said, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. 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.” As an organizer she frequently critiqued the male-dominated, top-down leadership of the various civil rights organizations with which she worked. She believed leadership should help people connect to the power within themselves, then they could rise up with strength, courage and creativity to challenge the unjust systems around them. Through her behind- the-scenes work she turned dreams into realities, visions into substantive programs, and did the hard work to make the movement a transformative force.
Baker began her life of activism in Harlem during the Depression. She helped organize consumer cooperatives to develop economic power in the black community through the Young Negroes Cooperative League. In 1938 she joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and began traveling through the South to build up local NAACP branches. She resigned eight years later, frustrated at not getting organizational support for efforts toward mass protest that she felt were needed to attack segregation in the South.
When the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched in 1954, Baker quickly stepped forward to help. She organized support for the Montgomery movement, coordinated publicity and raised financial aid from around the country. In the bus boycott she saw the beginning of the “mass force” of which she had dreamed.
Following the successful desegregation of Montgomery’s buses, the momentum of protest stalled. Baker was frustrated that male clergy were not expanding the movement across the South—thereby squandering the outstanding work done mostly by women—to mobilize the men and women who had actually carried out the Montgomery campaign. Baker, along with Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison, drew up plans for a broad-based movement with black ministers in the lead. They invited about one hundred of the best-known black ministers to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was born.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen as the head of the SCLC, but it quickly became evident that someone with organizing skill was desperately needed if their grandiose plans were going to work. Friends pressured King to hire Baker as Executive Director, but King would only bring her on as “acting” director. She quickly got to work mobilizing people in cities across the South for the SCLC’s initial Crusade for Citizenship. This was a campaign in the South to hold rallies promoting voter registration. Baker mostly utilized women whose leadership had been honed in local churches. She said, “All the churches depended—in terms of things taking place—on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done.” Baker got those things done for the SCLC and built up the organization, especially with women.
Whether as a staff member at the SCLC or in her later positions, Baker was excellent at tending to the details that kept direct actions going: She kept track of who was in jail following protests; she monitored the needs of people who had been fired from their jobs for joining the protests, ensuring that they got whatever financial support was available.
As student-led sit-in movements spread across the country in 1960, Baker invited the students to meet together. They had been working in isolated circles, encouraged by one another’s actions,
but there was no coordination or overarching vision. Baker saw the need for these separate movements to come together in a student activist organization. Years earlier Baker had organized a
Youth Council for the NAACP. She recommended to King that the SCLC bring the students together for a conference at Shaw University. Though King and the SCLC agreed to sponsor the gathering, Baker persistently urged the students to maintain their independence. Through her inspiration and actions as a catalyst,
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born—the group that was to provide the most cutting-edge, on- the-ground activism in the major campaigns of the civil rights movement. Baker challenged them to look beyond the lunch counter sit-ins, what she termed “more than a Coke and a ham- burger.” Rather, they should push to bring about comprehensive change in the whole social structure of the U.S.
Baker resigned from the SCLC to work more closely with the SNCC as an advisor. As arguments swirled throughout the new organization, Baker suggested that the SNCC form two wings with different strategies. One wing would engage in nonviolent direct action. That wing worked alongside the Congress of Racial Equality to engage in the Freedom Rides to challenge the segregated system of interstate bus transportation. The other wing focused on voter registration, leading to the Freedom Summer in Mississippi and the voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama.
These two wings of the SNCC propelled the civil rights agenda through the early to mid-1960s. Throughout that period Baker was the mentor of the young activists. John Lewis called her “our personal Gandhi” and “the spiritual mother of SNCC.”
In 1964 as the campaign for voter registration and voting rights was underway in Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer and other leaders organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention. Baker took charge of organizing efforts to develop support for the MFDP among delegations from the North. She saw the growing strength of this grassroots movement that challenged the entrenched political powers of the Democratic Party. Hamer’s testimony to the Credentials Committee, broadcast on national TV, was a riveting story about the violence associated with the segregation system in the South. Millions of viewers saw the passion among African-Americans in Mississippi to achieve the basic rights of citizenship that most Americans took for granted. Although the MFDP delegates failed to be seated at the convention in spite of protest actions on the convention floor, pressure from the MFDP built momentum for permanent changes in national politics. All along, Baker encouraged the del- egation to see the bigger picture of what they were doing and not be discouraged by losses along the way: “It is important that you go to the convention whether you are seated or not…This is only the beginning.”
Ella Baker never stopped throughout the 86 years of her life. Eventually, she returned to New York, where she participated in the Mass Party Organizing Committee, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Third World Women’s Alli- ance. She joined in the struggles for freedom in South Africa and Puerto Rico. Baker said, “I believe that the struggle is eternal.” In her long-range vision, she saw that each new generation would bring someone to hear the story and pick up the cause. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” she said.
And now you know her story too.
Meet more peacemakers like Ella Baker
This profile on Ella Baker comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. It contains more than 60 inspirational real-life profiles plus dozens more shorter stories that are grouped in the introductions to each section. Blessed are the Peacemakers features well-know heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as heroes you may have never heard of. This book circles the planet, reporting the largely unknown story of how peacemakers from a diversity of backgrounds and spiritualities have shaped our 20th and 21st centuries.