Ella Baker was not deterred from the male dominated civil rights movement. Although at times she worked side-by-side with such notables as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, she often found that her contributions and abilities were overlooked because she was a woman. Despite this disappointing reality, Ella Baker immersed herself into the mentorship of the civil rights movement’s youth and refused to end her fight for justice until her death.
Ella Baker’s Early Life
Ella Baker was born to Georgianna and Blake Baker on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating from high school, Baker left home for Shaw University in North Carolina. She earned her degree in 1927, and moved to Harlem where the lively black community furthered her interest in social justice. She quickly settled into her new home. She took a position as the executive director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, and was instrumental in combating the effects of the depression through the creation of consumer cooperatives.
Baker Joins the Civil Rights Movement
As the depression came to an end, Baker moved her attention to civil rights. In 1941, she joined the NAACP and began work as a field secretary. Two years later, she secured a position as the Director of Branches. Even though the NAACP was one of the few organizations at the time to fight for civil rights, Baker was disheartened with the group’s primary focus on legal avenues as opposed to grass roots organizing. Baker resigned in 1946, but remained with the organization for several years.
At the time, New York was a haven for black activists. Among these forward looking protestors was Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. New York was also the home of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisor, Stanley Levison. In 1956, while the Montgomery bus boycott was underway, Baker, Levison, and Rustin teamed up to form the group In Friendship. The purpose of the organization was to provide funding for civil rights endeavors. Through donations from wealthy patrons, the group was able to contribute a substantial sum to the boycott.
When the boycott ended, Baker was part of the discussions with Levison and Rustin about expanding the civil rights movement beyond the bus boycott. After King accepted the proposal, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957. In 1958, King requested that Baker take charge of the floundering Crusade for Citizenship, which was the SCLC campaign to promote voter registration. One year later, Baker was appointed temporary director of the SCLC until a permanent one was found.
By this time, although Baker was veteran organizer, the man centered leadership of the civil rights movement eliminated her chance for becoming the permanent director. Her fill-in position lasted for just one year. In February 1960, Baker found that her talents were more accepted by the students who had just begun the sit-in movement. She was instrumental in helping them establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a medium to organize student demonstrations.
Baker Supports the SNCC
By August 1960, Baker parted ways with the SCLC, and focused her attention on the mentorship of the SNCC. She had become discouraged with not only the failure to place women in leadership roles, but she disagreed with the leader-centered management of the organization. She believed that rather than depend upon one person for leadership, a group-centered style of leadership should be implemented. In addition, she was also unimpressed with King. Most frustrating to her was his failure to treat her on equal footing with men and his disinterest in her ideas.
Baker’s Later LifeWhile she continued to mentor the SNCC, Baker also worked with the Southern Education Fund and was instrumental in helping to establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Baker continued her activism until her death in New York City on December 13, 1986.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Quill, 1999.
Grant, Joanne. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2003.