Ella Baker's Life

Early Life

 

    When Ella Baker was a young girl growing up in Littleton, North Carolina, she was known to be both “sassy” and “bossy.” Later in life, she became known as an independent minded person, who “followed her own thinking,” had strong opinions, and a remarkable ability to express what she thought.

    Yet, “Miss Baker,” (as she was called in the Civil Rights Movement), was someone who was much more comfortable listening to what others had to say; prompting others to speak up, to recognize their ability to organize and inspire each other; to work together for their community’s benefit.

 

     The Baker family had moved from Norfolk, Virginia, when Ella was eight years old. She had been born there on December 13, 1903, just a few days before the first flight of the Wright brothers’ airplane. This was also a world of strict, racist, segregation laws that had been upheld by the US Supreme Court as fair just a few years before her birth.

     Sadly, Ella’s father had to stay behind in Norfolk to keep his job, and was only able to see his family three or four times a year. However, Ella was fortunate to be living with her remarkable maternal grandparents. Coming out of slavery, they not only owned land, but they had taught themselves to read and write.

    It was this mix of courage, the desire to work hard, caring for others, sharing what you had, and a love of education from her family and community that would sustain and support Ella Baker all her life.

    Due to the poor quality of the public schools for black children in Littleton, Ella’s parents worked hard to send Ella, and her brother and sister, to different boarding schools. Ella Baker entered Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was both a high school and college, at fifteen. But it was necessary for her to work during the school year, and during the summer. She became a waitress as well as a lab assistant because of her excellent grades and interest in biology and chemistry. She graduated in 1927 as the top student in her class. However, she saw that her dreams of being a medical missionary, or a social worker, could not be realized due to lack of funds and the social conditions and realities of the South. Soon, Ella Baker was on her way to New York City to look for work.

    

 

 

 

New York City

 

    After arriving, Ella Baker found a place to stay with relatives in Harlem. She was determined not to be a teacher, which was the usual expectation of educated black women in the South. She soon discovered that that was the lot of most educated black women in the North as well. However, until she found her true calling, she worked as a waitress again and a factory worker.

     At this time the Harlem Renaissance, the great cultural/political movement, was in full swing. It was also the time of Marcus Garvey who encouraged blacks to return to Africa. Ella Baker started to write for Harlem newspapers that gave a more complete and different picture of blacks in N.Y. and the U.S.  One of the papers, “The West Indian Review,” focused on providing news to immigrants from the Caribbean. Ella Baker felt close to this situation, being a migrant herself, coming to the North for the same reasons.

     Every chance she had, Ella Baker went to meetings, discussions/debates groups, arguing about the important issues of the day. Most times she was the only woman there. She started to think there might be an opportunity for her to help large numbers of people. Her arrival also coincided with the beginnings of a world wide economic Great Depression, which was to last until the early 1940’s. Working in the Harlem office of a black newspaper, Ella Baker was fortunate to work with writer George Schuyler, a “race man,” who was dedicated to boldly attacking injustice and racism.

     With Schuyler, Ella Baker developed and created food cooperatives, a reminder of how blacks in the South shared with each other to survive. Within three years, Baker became an expert on consumer affairs and could teach people how to shop for quality food and other items for less money. She was hired by the WPA, (Works Progress Administration). These were programs established by President FDR during his “New Deal” to bring the country out of the Depression. Ironically, Baker, working on a consumer education project in Harlem, became a teacher after all!

     After three years Ella Baker went to work for the NAACP, (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S., established in 1909 just a few years after Baker was born. Although the organization concerned itself with a wide range of discriminatory actions against “Colored People” or Negroes, (the most prevalent term at the time), it was highly focused on the elimination of lynching, the most terrible way of keeping blacks “in their place.” Those who were responsible for lynching were rarely prosecuted for it. The NAACP’s aim was to get the Congress to pass national laws against lynching and other murderous acts.

    

The South Again

 

    Ella Baker became an assistant field secretary of the NAACP and was sent to the branches of the organization across the South. She was now back in the segregated South she knew so well. She usually traveled six months of the year, from February to June, and tried to get blacks to join. The NAACP headquarters were in New York City, so it was seen by many southern whites, and terrorist groups like the KKK, (Ku Klux Klan), as “northern troublemakers” because blacks were urged to demand their citizen and human rights.

      To be most effective, Ella Baker wanted to speak to groups rather than individuals, so she solicited time at the end of a church service. Her goal was to attract working people to the NAACP because they were truly the ones who needed help the most. She was particularly sensitive to how educated professional people had often spoken to working people in the past, and wanted to speak “with them and not down to them.” In the four years in her position she, and the other dedicated field workers, increased the membership greatly.

    In 1942, during WWII, Ella Baker became the director of all the local branches for the NAACP across the United States. The local branches were the veins of the organization and its lifeblood. The local branches had to focus on important concerns for the local community, as well as issues important to all African Americans everywhere. Ella Baker was involved in advising and organizing whatever actions were needed to satisfy the membership, from getting a traffic light on the corner, to fighting court battles for voting, creation of jobs, or educational opportunities.

    At the same time while doing her duties for the NAACP, and continuing to travel to branches, Ella Baker was called upon by the U.S. government to conduct consumer affair research/surveys to see how people were dealing with shortages of food, clothing, shoes, gas, etc. during the war, and how stamp rations were working. As a result of the studies, changes were made in the rationing system.

    

Back To New York To Raise Her Niece

 

    In 1946, Ella Baker decided she could not be away from home for long periods of time. She left the NAACP because she had adopted her sister’s child, Jackie, and brought her from Littleton to Harlem to live with her and her husband, T. J. Roberts, known as Bob, who she had met at Shaw University and married in 1940. He was to become a constant support to her life and work. Independent minded, as always, she maintained her own name, and continued to work in the community. Within a year, she set up Harlem’s first office of the American Cancer Society.

     Remembering how her aunt raised her, Jackie said that her aunt told her,

 

Everybody had a job…My job was to go to school and do my best. Her job was to take care of me and make sure that I had food, clothing, and everything else I needed.” She added, “She was very firm, but she would never say you could not do something and that’s it. She always thought you should have an explanation. You knew that the love was there and there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for you.”

    

    In 1954, when Jackie was old enough, Baker returned to the NAACP as the first woman president of the NYC branch. She was now able to work for all children.

The NAACP lawyers, (including Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court Justice himself), had taken the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to the Supreme Court. This case challenged the previous “separate but equal” decision in 1896 that had upheld segregation in public schools. Everyone knew that segregation did not provide equality. It was a system of insults and humiliation.

    With this decision to desegregate the schools, people were not prepared for the resistance to it; the conflict between the Federal government and the southern states; Negroes being told they were going “too far, too fast;” and a southern obsession with “maintaining our way of life.” Few school districts in any part of the country rushed to carry out the decision. It took years to implement and enforce it.

   

    Although the North felt segregation did not affect them, Ella Baker knew better. The pattern was de facto segregation in the schools due to racial segregation in neighborhoods across the North. In 1955 Ella Baker was asked by the mayor of New York City to be a member of the Commission on School Integration. After examining all the schools in the city, it delivered a report in 1957. One of the demands encouraged by Ella Baker was to allow children to attend schools outside of their own neighborhoods. In 1961 The Open Enrollment Program began which allowed just that. School buses were provided free to elementary students and high school students were given special passes to be used on subway and buses.

     While she started to work on New York City’s segregated schools in 1955, she also became connected to another struggle earlier that same year in Montgomery, Alabama.

    Ella Baker had attended The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee several times. This was a school to train social activists.  At these workshops, where she was an instructor, as well as a student, she met Rosa Parks again. Ella Baker knew her very well from her many travels to Montgomery. Rosa Parks, a NAACP member, had already challenged several segregation laws in Montgomery. She was also a committed activist, and was preparing herself at Highlander for future actions she needed to take.

 

WE WHO BELIEVE IN FREEDOM CANNOT REST…UNTIL IT COMES

 

     It was the Montgomery bus boycott, started in December of 1955, which propelled a new young minister in town, Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight. To sustain the boycott that lasted over a year, many support groups were formed. Ella Baker created one in NYC called In Friendship with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and lawyer Stanley Levinson. This organization allowed Ella Baker many opportunities to speak with Dr. King.

    After the boycott, Ella Baker talked to Dr. King about starting a movement that would fight for the rights of African Americans throughout the South. This organization would have to be a southern one so that its members wouldn’t be labeled “northern troublemakers or agitators.” While MLK initially thought that people needed a respite after their victory, Ella Baker disagreed and persisted. She acknowledged that MLK was inexperienced, but she was afraid that the momentum of people’s activism would be lost or not expanded to other areas of segregation.

     After convincing him, a meeting was called in Atlanta, Georgia in January, 1957. Out of this gathering of southern black organizations, the SCLC, (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), was born, and King became its president. A few months later the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first act of its kind since 1875, was passed in Congress and it established the Civil Rights Commission. Most African Americans felt this law didn’t give enough power to the government to enforce their rights. Yet the act did encourage the new SCLC to move ahead with a voter registration program called, the Crusade for Citizenship.

    Within only four weeks Ella Baker organized rallies in 22 southern cities. However, due to conflict between the NAACP and the SCLC, and a lack of organization in the new organization, results were poor. Since this was a temporary assignment, Ella Baker returned to New York only to have MLK ask her again to return to Atlanta to organize SCLC’s main office. In essence, Ella Baker quickly took on all the responsibilities and work of an executive director eventually with the title of interim director. This was due in part because she was not a minister, and not a man. She knew that it would be difficult for the “male-dominated leadership” to accept her, particularly since she was not afraid to disagree with them.

     Ella Baker made many suggestions for a stronger and more effective SCLC: citizenship schools for literacy, unifying all member groups, developing leadership in the ranks, a program to fight every form of discrimination using mass action and non-violent resistance. MLK agreed to all her suggestions and when she was just about to present them to SCLC’s board of directors, another galvanizing event in 1960 brought a dramatic change in Ella Baker’s life.

 

“STRONG PEOPLE DON’T NEED STRONG LEADERS.”

 

     A group of black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, after much planning, sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.  When they were not served, they remained seated until the store closed. This was not the very first “sit-in,” attempted, but due to the new heightened national media attention, it now got reported in the national press. News quickly spread and others came to join from around the South, where similar actions were tried.  When one group of students was arrested, others took their seats at the lunch counters.

     All participants stuck to the belief of non-violence resistance, even faced with horrible treatment. At times Baker had questioned the tactic of non-violence, but she knew how important it was that these young people were organized, and ready for action. Their energy and determination could renew the movement. She knew that it was vital for all these young people to meet, communicate, and plan their future actions.

     Ella Baker immediately asked for funds from SCLC to sponsor such an organizing meeting. SCLC and the NAACP, and CORE, (Congress for Racial Equality), were primarily adult oriented organizations, and it took some doing to convince them that this needed to be done. But again Ella Baker persisted. She arranged for her alma mater, Shaw University, to host a meeting over the Easter weekend in April 1960. She expected a small turn out. However, more than 300 students, both black and white showed up.

     Each established organization tried to convince the students to join them. But they were determined to be independent. Ella Baker admired them for this, and encouraged them to make their own decisions and be free to form their own group.

 

    It was at this juncture that Ella Baker got into another argument with Martin Luther King, who expected that since Ella Baker had called the meeting, the students would naturally become an appendage to SCLC. Ella Baker was very upset and walked out.  The students did form an organization SNCC, (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), pronounced “Snick,” and Ella Baker became their advisor.

   

 

“Bigger Than a Hamburger”

 

    To help explain the goals of the “sit-ins,” and the new student led movements around the South, Ella Baker wrote, what is now a famous article, in a magazine called Southern Patriot in May, 1960. She wanted people to realize that the demonstrations…

 

“are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke…” and that what the students were trying to achieve was to “rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”

 

 

    In August 1960 she decided to resign from SCLC to focus her energies on SNCC. But since SNCC couldn’t pay her a salary, she worked for Atlanta’s YWCA and was director of a project to create racial understanding between white and black college students in the South. With her great skill, Baker brought students together in workshops, discussed the civil rights movement, and asked SNCC members to take part.

 

    In keeping with her belief that everyone can be a leader, Ella Baker used questioning techniques to promote a clear picture of any action that was planned. She believed everyone had something to contribute, and if a person was not speaking up at meetings, she would sit next to that person, and ask their opinion of what was going on. When the person responded, Baker raised his or her hand and pointed out, “Here’s someone with something to say.”

     As long as Baker was there, the members of SNCC felt protected. Bob Moses who became the SNCC field secretary, and later founder of the Algebra Project, remembered that Ella Baker gave people space to operate in, and no one could walk in and tell them what to do. Baker’s rare interference at meetings would be attempts to ask a question and let members think things through, and help them make a clear decision.

     SNCC members got involved with numerous organizations and actions: voter registrations, Freedom Rides, and Sit-Ins across the South. In areas like Georgia and Mississippi, there were great dangers, and threats to their lives. When high school students boycotted schools that prevented them from demonstrating or taking actions, SNCC set up Freedom Schools to continue their education. 

 

    Ella Baker became a consultant to the Southern Conference Educational Fund of Louisville, Kentucky.  It had been created in 1942 to improve relations between southern whites and blacks. In this work, Baker continued to “bridge” the gap between the older and younger members of the group. Again she was there not to take over and run things, something she could easily have done, but was there to help.

    

 

March on Washington

 

     In 1963 the goal of the March on Washington was to convince the U.S. Congress to pass new extensive civil rights legislation.  Ella Baker did not go to Washington for the march. When the march was planned, no woman was asked to speak. After protest, three women were finally given an opportunity. Since Ella Baker had angered SCLC over its plan to take over SNCC, she was not invited to speak. 

     SNCC’s message at the march was to be more militant than what the organizers wanted. SNCC member John Lewis, who later became a Congressman from Georgia, was to speak and was asked to “tone down” his language, something if Ella Baker were around, he would not have been asked to do. However, to promote a position of unity, John Lewis with the help of James Forman, another SNCC leader, rewrote their remarks.

 

 

Birmingham. Alabama

 

    It was in Birmingham, Alabama that the largest number of young people participated in civil rights demonstrations. Although Birmingham was a SCLC project it was SNCC who trained the young people. Ella Baker visited them when they went to jail, and praised them for their courage.

    It seemed that almost every time blacks were successful in getting the nation’s attention on civil rights, a brutal terror attack from those committed to segregation occurred. Shortly after the March on Washington, a bomb ripped through a Birmingham church killing four young black girls attending Sunday school.  Although enraged at this, and numerous past atrocities, the people felt they had to intensify the struggle and not slow down.

      Demonstrations increased in Birmingham, Alabama, and children, young people and adults were seen on national television being hosed and knocked down with fire water cannons, while police dogs snapped at their bodies.

 

 

Mississippi Freedom Summer

    

    Ella Baker went next to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer of 1964, and its huge voter-registration drive. It became clear that even though white people had participated in many actions in support of civil rights, SNCC felt that whites needed, now more than ever, to be a bigger part of their work. White people, also would draw the attention of the whole nation. They would prompt intervention of federal agencies, like the FBI, if rights were violated, or if they were attacked. In the past, blacks knew that they had very little chance of getting the nation’s attention. Many of the local police and sheriff authorities were members of racist groups.

     Large numbers of white college students volunteered for Freedom Summer. Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival two students from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered, along with James Chaney of Mississippi. It riveted the nation’s media attention. Most Americans learned for the first time what was going on in that state.

    

    Ella Baker was asked her reaction. “The unfortunate thing is that it took this…to make the rest of the country turn its eyes on the fact that there were other (black) bodies lying in the swamps of Mississippi. Until the killing of a black mother’s son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

    

    Even with the reluctant participation of the FBI in the case, the trial and release of those charged with the murders by an all white jury highlighted the unjust system. Later, a federal court was able to send seven of the twenty-one men to jail. (Many years later in a film, “Mississippi Burning,” the FBI was given undue credit for helping to solve this case, and protecting blacks. The reality was that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had exhibited a extreme dislike of black people. He was pushed into having the FBI in Mississippi by President Lyndon B. Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 less than a month after the three men were murdered).

     This bill had been around since 1963 and was the act that MLK was hoping to see enacted after the March on Washington. Now a reality, it covered discrimination in public places, equal job and promotional opportunities, and federal assistance in desegregation of schools. However, the new law did little to secure voting rights for blacks. So a new amendment to the Constitution, the 24th was enacted that same year to eliminate the requirement for a poll tax in order to vote. Although violence continued to dwindle their ranks, SNCC workers held steadfast and focused on other obstacles to complete freedom. Here again, Ella Baker played a major role.

   

 

Fannie Lou Hamer and The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

 

    At this time in history, the Democratic Party held great power in the southern states. The Party decided which candidates to support, and what issues they were going to take a stand on. Black Mississippians asked to join. The all white Democrats said no. So it was decided to form a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was open to whites and blacks. Ella Baker helped to organize the MFDP, and she ran its office in Washington, D.C.

     It was an important time for the new party. There was to be an election for  President of the United States in 1964 and the MFDP wanted to challenge the legitimacy of the all-white Mississippi party to represent the state. The convention to nominate the candidates was to be in Atlantic City, NJ. Ella Baker knew that in order to get the attention of the convention she needed the help of members of Congress. She spoke to many politicians she knew and they agreed to help replace the all white party.

     Ella Baker accompanied another founder and vice chairperson of the MFDP, Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer to the convention. Fannie Lou Hamer had joined SNCC in her hometown and she wanted to tell her personal story. She was not only denied the right to vote, but was brutally beaten. Her speech to the convention was carried on national TV.

    As Hamer started to talk, the President Lyndon Baines Johnson came on television. He had ordered Hamer to be cut off, as a president can, so he could speak. He had to get votes in the South and was worried about the reaction to Hamer’s speech. Fortunately, TV cameras continued to film Hamer, and later that evening her statement was broadcast on news programs. People responded and made known to the convention that they supported the MFDP.

    Democratic politicians then suggested that the MFDP could participate in convention activities, but couldn’t be considered a real delegation with the same rights. The members of the MFDP refused this offer and continued to demonstrate outside the convention hall.

    Outside, Ella Baker made a rousing speech, with the pictures of the murdered civil rights workers, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman behind her. Although many members of the  MFDP felt unfairly treated and betrayed by the national party, this was the last time that state delegations to a national party would be racially segregated.

    

 

Selma, Alabama

 

    It was not long before Ella Baker got involved in yet another event in Selma, Alabama in March, 1965, that repeated a general pattern which occurred in other cities: adults and children alike demonstrated, police attacked them, and then they were rounded up and sent to jail. In order to dramatically show the need for voting rights legislation, members of SCLC and SNCC organized a march out of Selma to the capital of Montgomery to respond to the killing by Alabama State Police of a black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was trying to protect members of his family during a previous demonstration. The first attempt to march was cruelly blocked with tear gas and horses. The second attempt was turned around.

    Initially, SNCC was a big part of the leadership for this march, and Ella Baker was preparing to participate. However, many in SNCC felt that too many people would be exposed on the open road to outright danger from racists. Past events had proven them correct, while others wanted to be there. Due to so much disagreement Ella Baker decided not to go. The third attempt, however, finally succeeded because the President of the United States sent Alabama National Guardsmen to protect the marchers.

 

 

“GIVE THE PEOPLE LIGHT AND THEY WILL FIND A WAY.”

 

     In August of 1965 the Voting Rights Act became law. Literacy tests as prerequisites to voting were the main target of this act. These were great social and political victories. But, as in any piece of legislation, what is on paper is worthless unless the people it was meant to serve do not actively secure their rights and demand enforcement. Ella Baker clearly understood the frustrations with mainstream democratic processes. After a few victories white Americans could feel that perhaps there was no longer a need to do any more.

     But when Ella Baker went home to Harlem, she knew that there would be other battles to fight, and that young people would be searching to find a more revolutionary approach. The movement to black power was a demand for more independence from whites.

     Internationally she found that Africans in colonial situations were struggling with independence as well. She supported the liberation movements in Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe), and in South Africa. Baker worked for the independence of Puerto Rico and against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

    Ella Baker had been “a leader behind the scenes,” and truly felt that everyone could find the strength to make a difference in their own life and in the lives of others. Throughout her social activist life Ella Baker thought that it was important to empower people to believe in their own abilities to make for change. She might suggest, give her opinion, but was happiest when others took the lead.

    Ella Baker never gave up because she believed in action. She thought people should never let up when there was a goal to fight for and reach. She said, “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.”

 

 

They Called Her “FUNDI”

    

    The young activists in the movement had given Ella Baker a Swahili name, Fundi, to help describe her generosity of spirit: the name given to someone who generously and unselfishly shares his or her knowledge and skills with others.

   

    Robert P. Moses expressed what Ella Baker taught him in a chapter from his book, “Radical Equations,” called, “Learning From Ella,”

    “…if you really want to do something with somebody else, really want to work with that person, the first thing you have to do is make a personal connection. You have to find out who it is you are working with. All across the South you could see that in grassroots rural people. That was their style. Miss Baker took this style to a sophisticated level of political work.”

    

    In one of many rally speeches Ella Baker told how as a young child she had hit a boy who had called her “a nigger.” “But then,” she said, “I learned that hitting back at one person was not enough.” In another speech she expanded on that idea by describing what was important to fight for; and in order to see where we (people) are going, “not only must we remember where we’ve been, but we must understand where we have been.”

    Ella Baker died on her birthday in 1986. We are very proud and honored that we go to her school. In the spirit of Ella Baker’s favorite hymn: may she “guide our feet” on our activist journey.


 

 

 

 

 

Created on 4/12/2011 - Last updated on 4/12/2011