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Ella Baker: Civil Rights Influencer

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

by Tara Mae

Three Village Historical Society recognizes the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was the culmination of decades of strife and striving for civil rights. This event was built on the sacrifice, labor, and strategy of ordinary people who were revolutionary activists. Ella Baker, New Yorker by choice, not birth, was a grassroots organizer and the first female director of the New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)  She used her fortitude for the fight for freedom, even as women were consistently overlooked or ejected from leadership roles. Baker’s tactics, methodology, and tenacity informed the movement and affected leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like so many before and since, Baker moved to New York City in search of employment. She was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. The granddaughter of slaves, her father worked on a steamship line and her mother took in boarders to earn extra money. In 1910, Blacks were attacked at the shipyard. Her mother took Baker and her two siblings to Littleton, North Carolina, while her father remained with the steamship company in Norfolk. Baker graduated valedictorian of Shaw University in 1927. 

In Manhattan, Baker encountered urban poor, impoverished by the Great Depression. She started working as a journalist for the American West Indian News and then as an editorial assistant for for the Negro National News. Baker met and befriended George Schuyler, founder of the Young Negroes Cooperative League. It sought to advance Black economic clout via collective networks. After serving as its first secretary-treasurer, Baker quickly became its national director. With Schuyler, she held training forums and conferences designed to promote complementary systems of Black economic growth.

These activities were her entry into positions of power in social justice movements, but they were not her introduction to reform. A teenager when the 19th Amendment was passed, Baker was influenced by the suffragist movement. Despite her age, Baker advocated for women’s voting rights. She modified techniques used by suffragists for the civil rights movement. Throughout her life, Baker fought for Black women to have equal rights as well as equal representation in public life. These tenets would influence her public life and professional choices. 

Involved in many causes focusing on the advancement of Black people, particularly Black women, Baker took a job with the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Program. Baker worked as an educator, teaching classes labor history, consumer education, and African history. She embraced and explored the cultural and political atmosphere of Harlem and was instructed by the teachings and ideals of the Harlem Renaissance. Baker protested Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and supported the Scottsboro defendants. She married her college boyfriend, with whom she had been living, T.J. Roberts; they would later divorce in 1958. And Baker began her illustrious association with the NAACP, which at that time had its headquarters in New York City.

Schuyler initially recommended her to the organization, and she was hired as a secretary. Baker grew more involved and acted as advisor to its New York Youth Council. On behalf of the NAACP, she traveled the country, particularly the South. Baker arranged local chapters, raised funds, and recruited members. Much of Baker’s outreach focused on bringing young people and women into the group. In 1943, she was named director of branches, relegating her to the highest ranking woman in the NAACP. This enabled Baker to expand her intentions of broadening the diversity of the membership and leadership. 

During the mid 1940s, Baker ran leadership conferences in Atlanta, Chicago, and other cities. She continued to tour the nation. Baker’s trips took her into people’s homes and communities; she responded to the welcome with thank you notes, gratitude, and lasting connections. Able to connect with persons of varying socio-economic standings, Baker was considered the NAACP’s most successful organizer. Her personalized approach encouraged an increased involvement from existing participants and attracted new members. 

A true grassroots organizer, Baker believed that the true strength of social change came from the dedication and commitment of its supporters.  Baker wanted the NAACP to be more democratic and championed the idea that real improvement came from widespread local action. These theories helped determine the procedures of the equal and civil rights movements during the mid-20th century.

Acutely aware of the double standards that existed for professional men and women, Baker did her best to mitigate their impact as she labored to correct them. She rarely acknowledged or discussed her family or personal life, a practice embraced by many other women who fought in the ranks of the civil rights movement. It was still rare for a woman to hold such a visible, prominent position within an institution. Men arguably benefited by being portrayed as diligent workers and doting family men, while women might be criticized for pursuing ventures outside of domestic affairs, thereby distracting from their goals. By refusing to participate in speculation about private matters, Baker better established herself as a strong force at the forefront of the fight. 

Family obligation and frustration with the NAACP’s bureaucracy made Baker officially resign her job in 1946. Having taken in her niece, Baker chose to volunteer for the organization rather than work there full-time. Baker concentrated on school desegregation and police brutality. In 1952, she became president of the New York Branch of the NAACP. Her focus never wavered from the objectives of giving women more responsibility and authority, dismantling its hierarchical management structure, and permitting local branches greater autonomy. She gave up her presidency to unsuccessfully run for New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket. After the Montgomery bus boycott began, Baker co-founded In Friendship, a group that raised money to challenge Jim Crow Laws in the South.

From the late 1950s-1960s, Baker lived outside New York, as her activism drew her into the South. There, she applied the skills she had honed in the state. She participated in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which had its public debut at Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, a demonstration that Baker organized with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Baker, who was the associated director of the SCLC, was the first staff person hired for it. Martin Luther King Jr. was its president.

Favoring a personable tactic, the SCLC tried to gain momentum through sermons in church, education, and voter outreach centers. Its first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a Black voter registration initiative that was managed by Baker. The organization, unfortunately, did not necessarily achieve its primary ambitions. She reportedly still favored more immediate and direct action and felt like an outsider. Among her apparent concerns was that the activism centered around the Black church, an entity that had ample female membership but lacked female leadership. 

Baker identified the same issues in the civil rights effort and was discouraged. The Greensboro Woolworth sit-ins provided an opportunity for her to aid young, developing activists. She arranged a meeting at Shaw University with the student leaders of the sit-ins, and from that gathering came the formation of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Under her tutelage and guidance, the SNCC emerged as a vital in the quest for civil rights. It adapted Gandhi's nonviolent principles and was instrumental in the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer. Baker, like many of her contemporaries, understood that voting was integral to manifesting real change. Notably, this organization was comparably open to women. 

Maintaining her practice of practicing social activism on many fronts, Baker also participated in the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) where she worked with her friend Anne Braden, who she had first met in New York. Its aim was to unite Black and white people to pursue social justice. To this end, the SCEF fundraised for Black activists, pushed for the application of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights proposals, and attempted to educate southern whites about the evils of racism. 

Moving back to New York City in 1967, Baker’s advocacy never wavered. In 1972, she traveled the United States as a proponent of the “Free Angela” campaign in support of Angela Davis. She aligned herself with many women’s groups, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a non-profit, non-governmental organization endeavoring “to bring together women of different political views and philosophical and religious backgrounds determined to study and make known the causes of war and work for a permanent peace.” Baker died on her 83rd birthday in 1986. She truly lived up to the honor of her nickname, Fundi, a Swahli word that references an individual who teaches a craft to a younger generation. 

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