Ella Baker

(1903 - 1986)

Speech to Southern Conference Education Fund

New York City - April 24, 1968

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was a master strategist and visionary in the civil rights movement. She was a guiding force for prominent movement leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, and she fueled the work of several leading organizations in the freedom movement. Baker was regarded as a powerful and inspiring figure, but she consciously avoided the limelight. She believed that local African Americans could best lead themselves in their efforts to overturn Jim Crow segregation, rather than relying on charismatic preachers or outside experts. One activist praised Baker as "the mortar between the bricks," holding together the often unsettled foundations of the American civil rights struggle.1

Ella Josephine Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903 and raised in Littleton, North Carolina. She was the granddaughter of slaves, one of three children born into an extended family of modest means and strong social ideals. Her family valued faith, hard work, education and duty to the community. Baker biographer Barbara Ransby says the family belonged to a particular class "who saw themselves as representatives of the race to the white world and as role models for those less fortunate within the black community."2 Baker's father was railroad dining-car waiter. Her mother had been trained as a teacher. She managed the household, was active in church and women's groups, and groomed her children to be pious and respectable citizens. The family was hardly well-to-do, but they had much compared to the desperate poverty endured by so many other African Americans, and they believed much was expected of them in return. The drive to serve her people powered Ella Baker's life.

After attending the high school boarding program at all-black Shaw University in Raleigh, Baker got her B.A. in sociology from Shaw. She showed an early interest in activism, leading campus protests against strict social rules such as a ban on silk stockings and the obligation to sing spirituals to visiting guests. After graduating in 1927, Baker moved to Harlem to live with a cousin and look for work. Although the Great Depression made jobs scarce, Baker thrived intellectually in the political and cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance. She helped organize The Young Negroes Cooperative League, a coalition of local cooperatives and buying clubs that banded together to increase their economic power. She was also involved in the federal Workers Education Project, the Harlem YWCA, the Women's Day Workers and Industrial Leagues, and other left-wing and pro-union organizations. Baker had many friends who were socialists and communists. She admired their principles and some of their organizing methods, but she never joined their parties.

In 1935, Baker went undercover to report on the dismal conditions of itinerant black domestic workers in New York. She posed as a job seeker among the black women who waited each morning on designated Bronx street corners for white women to hire them for a day of low-paid labor. The women workers were routinely approached by white men wanting to pay for sex. Baker co-authored an expose titled "The Bronx Slave Market" which appeared in the NAACP's magazine, Crisis.

In 1940, Baker got a job working for the NAACP as a field organizer and later as a director of the organization's branches. For much of the 1940s, she travelled the South building membership and recruiting local leaders. Baker often spent a half of each year on the road. Historian Charles M. Payne says Baker's vast travels for the NAACP were a kind of "practicum" in grassroots social change.3 Early on, Baker recognized the dangers inherent in having well-educated outsiders arrive in local communities to organize. "Such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement," she said. "Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time and they don't do the work of actually organizing."4 Over time, Baker began to chafe at the NAACP's bureaucracy and its egocentric national leader, Walter White. She left the national organization in 1946 to care for a young niece, but eventually took the helm of the New York City NAACP branch.

As the 1950s civil rights movement gathered steam in the South, Baker joined with New York activists Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to raise money in support of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama, and the group's city bus boycott. In 1957, Rustin and Baker travelled south to help the young King create a new organization that would coordinate protest activities across the region, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Though Baker had misgivings about King's top-down leadership style, she signed on as the provisional director of the SCLC's voter rights campaign. With her years of ground-level organizing across the South, Baker had a wealth of local networks and connections to help spread the SCLC message.

After more than two years, Baker left the SCLC because she felt it had become excessively centered on King's persona and authority. Baker yearned for a genuinely grassroots, democratic way to make change. "It was the opportunity to dig in and work shoulder to shoulder with local activists that most appealed to Baker," Ransby writes. "Local people would be there long after she had gone. In the final analysis, [she felt] the major political decisions had to be theirs."5

In 1960, a wave of student-led lunch counter sit-ins offered new promise. Baker organized a youth conference at Shaw University that drew hundreds of young activists and established leaders, including King. Baker encouraged the young people to be their own leaders rather than get absorbed in existing organizations. At the end of the weekend, the conference goers created a new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It brought together a new generation of organizers, including Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and John Lewis. At 57 years old, Baker was "the godmother of SNCC," urging the group to move deep into the rural South to recruit and support local leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi. Baker's method, with the SNCC cadre and local southern communities, was to create "conditions of possibility for others to find their voices and develop leadership."6 With Baker's help, the Mississippi civil rights movement would become one of the most successful chapters of the freedom story in the South.

Ella Baker stayed involved in progressive politics and collective action well into her later years. But for a woman of such historical significance, Baker took pains to obscure her contributions. She remained true to her self-effacing style, leaving relatively few personal records or intimate interviews for historians and biographers to work with. She generally did not talk about her private life, even with colleagues. Few of her fellow activists knew about her 20-year marriage to a hometown boyfriend that ended in divorce in late 1958. She'd kept her maiden name and was universally referred to as Miss Ella Baker. And although Baker had a reputation as a powerful orator, she "did not give many formal speeches before large audiences that were recorded by the media or published in manuscript form."7 Baker died on her 83rd birthday in her Harlem apartment. Her memorial service was attended by Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Julian Bond and others who considered themselves her movement "children."8

This speech was recorded at New York's Roosevelt Hotel at a dinner honoring Ella Baker. The event was sponsored by the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). SCEF was an interracial civil rights group. Baker had worked with the organization from the late 1950s. It was headed by two of her closest friends, Anne and Carl Braden, who were white. The Bradens were journalists and radical activists from Louisville, Kentucky who challenged racial oppression in their hometown and across the South. In 1954, the Bradens purchased a home on behalf of a black couple in a segregated white suburb of Louisville. Angry whites burned a cross on the lawn and finally bombed the house when the black occupants were away. Anne Braden was present at the testimonial dinner in New York. Baker mentions her, and also refers to the recently released report of the President's Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission had been appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of rioting in African American urban neighborhoods in 1967.

The tribute dinner took place three weeks after King's assassination in Memphis. Brown attended the dinner, having been recently released from a Louisiana prison on a weapons charge. Carmichael was there, too, flanked by bodyguards because of the increasing controversy caused by his black power rhetoric. Historian Howard Zinn introduced Ella Baker as "one of the most consequential and yet one of the least honored people in America." Zinn continued: "She was always doing the nitty-gritty, down-in-the-earth work that other people were not doing. While all sorts of rhetoric was going on, all kinds of grandstanding was going on, that's what she was doing."9

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