Baker was sixty-one years old when her comrade, historian Howard
Zinn, wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists: “Ella
Baker is more responsible than any other single individual for the
birth of the new abolitionists as an organized group, and who remains
the most tireless, most modest, and wisest activist I know in the
struggle for human rights.”
a recent talk, Cornel West said: “There is no civil rights
movement without the witness and example of Ella Baker.”
Baker, however, has yet to receive full, mainstream public
recognition for her contribution to American democracy, especially
the co-founding and guidance of the most effective, innovative civil
rights organization of the 20th
century, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—SNCC.
While it is true that the media demonizes Malcolm X and sanitizes Dr.
King, Ella Baker, a Black woman, is simply ignored.
her new book, From BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “Black women have been central
to every significant campaign for Black rights and freedom. Ella
Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash…were critical to the
development of the civil rights movement, but that movement is still
primarily known by its male leaders.”
Baker was three decades older (She was called a “middle-aged
hell-raiser”), but young activists trusted her because she
showed more confidence in the audacity and inventiveness of youth
than in the expertise of established civil rights organizations. The
students affectionately called her “Miss Baker” (though
she was married). Her nickname was “Fundi,” a Swahili
term for a person who hands down skills and wisdom from one community
to another. Baker defied stereotypes. She was a militant
revolutionary who wore elegant hats and dressed as if she were
founding of SNCC at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in
1960 changed the tone and direction of the civil rights movement. The
conference, which drew hundreds of students from throughout the
South, was tense. Male leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference wanted to oversee the fledgling organization, to put SNCC
under their control. Baker was the only woman to speak at the Plenary
Session. She warned students against bureaucracy and co-optation. She
insisted on the autonomy of the students, who had already
demonstrated their brilliance and savvy tactics in the early sit-ins.
“I knew that young people were the hope of any movement. It was
just a normal thing to me,” Baker said years later. Each
generation offers a new lens through which to view the contours of
did not repudiate the legal battles of the past. It went beyond them.
Baker’s democratic, grassroots practice permeated SNCC. By
shifting the focus from appeals to the elite to organizing the
disenfranchised and the poor, SNCC changed the center of gravity in
the movement. Black communities were not helpless. They were ready to
fight. Mississippi historian John Dittmer wrote: “Not since
Reconstruction had anyone seriously proposed that illiterate
sharecroppers had the same right to the franchise as did teachers,
lawyers, and doctors.“
by Baker, SNCC turned away from charismatic, top-down leaders to
group-centered leadership. And it put direct, mass action at the
center of strategy. SNCC students organized new sit-ins at segregated
facilities, carried out the historic freedom rides in the face of
violence, and registered black voters in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan
in rural Mississippi. SNCC’s assault on Jim Crow in the 60s did
more to abolish the legal apparatus of white supremacy than years of
well-financed legalistic and professionally run campaigns.
influence extended far beyond black communities in the South. Tom
Hayden participated in SNCC meetings and actions, and he saw
“participatory democracy” in action before he wrote the
SDS Port Huron Statement. In the SDS
Bulletin he asked:
“Can the methods of SNCC be applied to the North?”
Impact on Women in SNCC
Barbara Ransby published her comprehensive biography Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement in
2003, social activists intensified their community organizing and
focused on the most marginalized sections of the American system.
Ransby devotes an entire section to the role of women in SNCC.
was new about SNCC was its embrace of women as key participants in
mass protests and as leaders at the center of the struggle,”
Ransby writes. “The emergence of women as indigenous leaders
transformed gender relations within the movement.”
the Baker ethos of sisterhood and camaraderie, the norms of male
dominance and female deference were undermined. The SNCC experience
challenged men to rethink their own manhood and masculinity.
did not preach feminism, as the term came to be used in the 70s—she
did not preach at all—but her example did transform the
personal lives of the female freedom fighters, who became involved in
all phases of SNCC operations.
extensive involvement in direct action and mass protests set SNCC
apart from many past models of change.
effect on young women like Diane Nash, who was raised in middle-class
respectability, was profound. Nash became SNCC’s direct-action
organizer and coordinated the last phases of the historic Freedom
Rides. Decades later, she looked back on Baker’s mentorship.
“My relatives were quite worried about my safety….Older
people would look at you and say you were young and you would calm
down when you matured. Baker was the first older person I had known
who was so progressive. And I needed that reinforcement…It was
really important when things got hot and heavy.”
got very “hot and heavy” for Nash during the Freedom
Rides, when black and white activists rode interstate busses through
segregated Southern states in 1961. The heroic riders faced racist
mobs who beat them with baseball bats, lead pipes and bicycle chains.
bus burnings and arrests brought the freedom rides to a halt in
Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Concerned with the safety of the
riders, civil rights leaders tried to dissuade SNCC from continuing
the campaign. There were moments of despondency. To resume the rides,
or to end them—that was the question for Diane Nash. Baker
often communicated a sense of history to the students, a long-term
vision without which movements cannot be sustained.
and Baker talked by phone on a daily basis. As Nash recalled years
later: “Ella would pick me up and dust me off emotionally.”
After consulting with students in Nashville, where the movement was
strong, Diane concluded: “We can’t let them stop us with
violence. If we do, the movement is dead.” Taking
responsibility in her hour of decision, Nash organized a new group to
resume the rides.
legacy in Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter movement draws extensively from the Black radical
tradition, and the life of Ella Baker continues to swell the rolling
waves of resistance to mass incarceration and state terror. Ransby’s
extraordinary biography of Baker was followed by a host of radical
black feminist books that moved Baker out of the dimly lit margins of
the past to the center of the black liberation movement:
is often quoted, not only in books, but in speeches, posters and
banners in the recurrent uprisings against police murders. In
Ferguson, one poster read: “Until the killing of black mothers’
sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we
who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Youth chanted: “Ella
Baker was a freedom fighter/ She taught us how to fight/ We gonna
fight all day and night/ Until we get it right.”
influence is especially prominent in the work of Charlene Carruthers,
co-founder of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100). She explains
Baker’s most famous statement, “Strong people don’t
need strong leaders.”
often misread Ella Baker’s declaration…as a statement
against leadership. Instead she was cautioning movements against
valorizing single charismatic leaders, especially ones not grounded
in or accountable to communities. She understood that transformative
change requires the leadership of many people. Her wisdom was shared
in a time when individual Black men were seen—by media and
national decision-makers—as the most essential leaders in the
civil rights movement….There is no single charismatic leader
or organizer coming to save us…But it is collectively possible
to liberate ourselves. We are resilient and refuse to stop believing
in the possibility of a world where we live with dignity.
the dark moments of our present era, Ella Baker’s light shines
on the long walk to freedom.