Ella J. Baker

Ella J. Baker

Ella Josephine Baker, the granddaughter of slaves, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1903. After graduating from Shaw University in Rayleigh, North Carolina, Baker moved to New York City.

Baker joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League and in 1931 was appointed its national director. She was also employed by the Works Progress Administration to provide literacy and consumer education to workers.

In 1940 Baker became a field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) where she was involved in the anti-lynching campaign. Over the next few years Baker attempted to persuade the organization to become involved in community-based activism. Baker also played a leading role in the campaign to desegregate New York City public schools. According to Susan Gushee O'Malley: "her strength was to evoke in people a feeling of common need and the belief that people together can change the conditions under which they live.

In 1956 Baker and Bayard Rustin established Friendship, an organization dedicated to raising money for the fight against Jim Crow Laws in the Deep South. The following year she moved to Atlanta to work with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While in Atlanta she also ran the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign. Baker disagreed with the SCLC's policy of having a strong central leadership. Baker, who favoured local, grassroots action, left the organization in 1959.

Ella J. Baker
Ella J. Baker

In February 1960, Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students started a student sit-in at the restaurant of their local Woolworth's store which had a policy of not serving black people. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of Martin Luther King they did not hit back.

Baker became involved in this campaign and in October, 1960, helped to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker commented: "The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke. Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination - not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life."

SNCC adopted the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action. This included participation in the Freedom Rides during 1961. Leading figures in the organization included Robert Moses, Marion Barry, James Lawson, Charles McDew, James Forman and John Lewis. According to Susan Gushee O'Malley: "In the following years, Baker was the older person behind SNCC students who listened, counseled, advised, and nurtured the civil rights workers who organized the freedom rides, worked in voter registration, and broke segregation in the South."

In 1964 Baker returned to New York City and remained active in the civil rights movement. She was also a supporter of freedom struggles in Africa, a national board member of the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee and vice-chairperson of the Mass Party Organizing Committee.

Ella Josephine Baker died on 13th December 1986.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ella J. Baker, The Southern Patriot (June, 1960)

The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.

Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination - not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.

In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, N.C., were re-echoed time and again: "We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship."

By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the "whole world" and the "Human Race."

This universality of approach was linked with a perceptive recognition that "it is important to keep the movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership."

It was further evident that desire for supportive cooperation from adult leaders and the adult community was also tempered by apprehension that adults might try to "capture" the student movement. The students showed willingness to be met on the basis of equality, but were intolerant of anything that smacked of manipulation or domination.

This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.

However hopeful might be the signs in the direction of group-centeredness, the fact that many schools and communities, especially in the South, have not provided adequate experience for young Negroes to assume initiative and think and act independently accentuated the need for guarding the student movement against well-meaning, but nevertheless unhealthy, over-protectiveness.

Here is an opportunity for adult and youth to work together and provide genuine leadership - the development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.