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Ella Baker: A Political Organizer’s Organizer

The Reverend Doctor Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Leadership Christian Council (SCLC) whose most celebrated leader was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, delivered the benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20. His words brought full circle the arc of the civil rights movement which gained speed in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the formation of the SCLC. Yet while the SCLC has been identified with male leadership, one should note that its first Executive Director was none other than a woman, Ella Josephine Baker, whose commitment to community organizing and popular power was nothing short of remarkable.


Baker, born on December 13, 1903 died in New York City on December 13, 1986. During the Great Depression, she became involved with the Young Negroes Cooperative League. Afterwards, she joined the NAACP, but jumped at the chance of working with the SCLC at its inception. Baker was instrumental at helping to establish the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — from which Congressman John Lewis emerged to become a leader –, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

What was her philosophy and from which principles did she draw strength from? I attempted to answer the question in an essay some years ago. It is reproduced without revisions below.

Ella Baker’s Philosophy and Role in the Civil Rights Movement

An examination of the literature that describes Ella Josephine Baker’s extraordinary role in the civil rights movement quickly leads the reader to the influence of her deeply religious parents and grandparents in shaping her philosophy of selfless devotion to others as she sought to impart the notion that uplifting one’s lot through collective action and organizing against injustice were both necessary to achieve durable change. Less prominent in these readings is the influence that social democratic ideas and principles had on shaping, probably refining her views of the world and the place of Blacks in America. Yet there’s no doubt that in Baker’s mind socialist ideas joined with the “worldview that held racial uplift and social responsibility as central to the value and meaning of religious life[1]

Baker’s world was one where black middle-class women were supposed to help maintain the home, raise the children, get educated, be active in their community, pass on values and knowledge to their children, be self-effacing and allow their men to lead and take credit for the community’s uplift. However she grew up to be a non-conformist and an activist. This was perhaps because when he preached, her grandfather allowed her to sit in the visiting minister’s chair next to the pulpit rather than in the pews and she gained the self-confidence that allowed her to see herself as men’s equal. The “deep sense of social responsibility and involvement in the community”[2] that he instilled in her probably had greater weight.

Ella Baker developed and applied the basic philosophy that freedom came with opportunity and responsibility, organizing was required to fight injustice because it would not implode of its own weight and that a leader’s role was to help people find the inner power to change their lives and the society they lived in. She did not believe in a miraculous savior nor that one was predestined to a particular life. Most importantly she believed that one’s beliefs had to be in harmony with one’s praxis. And since she did not see herself as inferior to men, black or white, she held that women did not have to shy away from leadership roles. Being a revolutionary did not require shedding expected standards of dress and behavior. But underneath the suit, the gloves and the hat that she wore while roaming the south incontestably beat the heart of a determined revolutionary.

Baker put her philosophy to the test when she joined the NAACP in 1941 and traveled on its behalf to set up “adult and youth chapters, meeting and befriending thousands of people, and creating a network of current and future activists.”[3] She became disillusioned with the oldest civil rights organization in the US because it was failing to lead mass movements.

The Montgomery bus boycott had proven that sustained mass action could lead to desegregation. If the south was to be desegregated however, a mass organization that could lead struggles in its various states had to evolve. “Baker and her colleagues Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson set out to do just that. In late 1956, the three met night after night to design the framework for a new southern movement, with black ministers as its leaders and Martin Luther King as its head.”[4] The Southern Christian Leadership Conference grew out of this effort and Baker became its soul. But Ministers used to being in the forefront and relegating women to the pews provided little support for mass empowerment. “Most of them made no attempt to recruit potential voters, teach them what they needed to know to register, and take them down to the courthouse.”[5] Baker clashed often with Martin Luther King and became frustrated with the SCLC’s top-down approach to fighting segregation.

The opportunity to build a truly mass movement came when she successfully brought together students who, throughout the south, were defying segregation through sit-ins and helped them establish the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From the very beginning, she urged the students to look beyond bringing down segregation, already a tall order, and to go on shaking the foundations of American society: “work to change the entire social structure of the country.”[6]

True to her philosophy of leadership, Baker never had a formal role in SNCC. This was a youth organization initiated by idealistic college and university students, most of whom had already been steeled by the desegregation struggle, despite suffering physical abuses and psychological torments. They were also willing to set aside their college education albeit temporarily and forego a relatively privileged situation to reach out to thee community of disenfranchised African-Americans. Not a small sacrifice. For Baker, what was important was that they embraced the idea that “people must fight for their own freedom and not rely on leaders to do it for them.”[7] If SNCC was going to fight for equality, then it would have to institutionalize it. Thus, from the beginning it welcomed women in an unprecedented way, “young and old, black and white, college students and illiterate sharecroppers into its ranks and gave them the latitude to become major strategists, organizers and activists.”[8]

SNCC was by no means a finely honed organization from the start. Its members were driven by a mix of idealism, determination and spontaneity. Although many of the sit-ins required both physical and mental preparation, a good understanding of the social forces at work in maintaining segregation and a dogged embrace of the principles of active non-violent resistance, they had engaged in peaceful disobedience throughout the south in pêle-mêle fashion. They returned to activism after SNCC’s establishment, but as Jane Stembridge, their first office secretary said:

“A great deal of time was spent trying to find out exactly what was going on in the protest centers… Response was next to nil… this was because the students were too busy protesting… No one really needed ‘organization’ because we then had a movement… Members of the first SNCC were vague simply because they were right damn in the middle of directing sit-ins, being in jail, etc., and they did not know what was going on anywhere outside of their immediate downtown… We had no one ‘in the field’ either. SNCC called for demonstrations once or twice. The response was extremely spotty and then the news was not sent in.”[9]

But over time, as the movement’s members and leaders gained experience and a keener understanding of the challenges they faced, they developed strategies and plans that would indeed shake southern society to its roots. Baker was incontestably the organization’s guiding force, but others also contributed to developing SNCC’s praxis. And it could not be otherwise. Foresight is limited by the information at hand and the ability to process that information in a sound analytical manner taking into account variables ranging from prior experience to lessons learned from the struggle of others. Baker’s leadership was built on her ability to make sound analyses of the reality of segregation and her belief in the power of people to change their condition once infused with the knowledge of their strength and the courage to face the opposition. Taking credit became perhaps unnecessary for the movement’s growth and consolidation proved that once properly seeded and tended to, a thousand flowers could indeed bloom. Others emerged to carry the torch forward.

Baker became involved in forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which was instrumental in desegregating the Democratic Party in the South and whose most charismatic leader was Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who had risen to leadership in SNCC. Baker also joined or founded other political formations. She was a skilled political organizer whose example deserves to be emulated.


[1] Rosetta E. Ross, Witnessing and Testifying, Black Women, Religion and Civil Rights, 2003, p. 1

[2] Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 2001, p. 139

[3] Ibid. p. 140

[4] Ibid, p. 138

[5] Ibid, p. 143

[6] Ibid, p. 150

[7] Ibid, p. 150

[8] Ibid, p. 161

[9] Howard Zinn, SNCC, The New Abolitionists, 1964, p.

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