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Ella Baker

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Title: Ella Baker  
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Subject: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), Southern Christian Leadership Conference, National Women's Hall of Fame, Septima Poinsette Clark
Collection: 1903 Births, 1986 Deaths, 20Th-Century African-American Activists, African-American Activists, African-Americans' Civil Rights Activists, American Democracy Activists, American Women Activists, Anti-Poverty Advocates, Cointelpro Targets, Community Activists, Shaw University Alumni, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom People, Works Progress Administration Workers
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Ella Baker

Ella Baker
Born Ella Josephine Baker
(1903-12-13)December 13, 1903
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
Died December 13, 1986(1986-12-13) (aged 83)
New York City, New York, USA
Alma mater Shaw University
Organization NAACP (1938–1953)
SCLC (1957–1960)
SNCC (1960–1962)
Movement American Civil Rights Movement
Spouse(s) T.J. (Bob) Roberts, divorced 1958

Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an radical democracy.[1] She has been called "One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement."[2]


  • Early life and career 1
  • "Participatory Democracy" 2
  • Work with prominent organizations 3
    • NAACP (1938–1953) 3.1
    • Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957–1960) 3.2
    • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960–1966) 3.3
    • Southern Conference Education Fund (1962–1967) 3.4
  • Final years 4
  • Legacy 5
  • Quotes 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life and career

Ella Jo Baker was born in Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Baker's grandmother had been enslaved and was whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master.

Baker attended anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL), which sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined in 1931 and soon became the group's national director.[4][5]

She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, where she taught courses in consumer education, labour history and African history. Baker immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s. She protested Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and supported the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, a group of young black men accused of raping two white women. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA. During this time, she lived with and married her college sweetheart, T. J. (Bob) Roberts; interestingly, most people did not know she had ever married. Their respective work schedules kept them often apart, and they finally divorced in 1958. Her life in Harlem was very exciting, and she befriended the future scholar and activist John Henrik Clarke and the future writer and civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray, and many others who would become lifelong friends.[6] The Harlem Renaissance influenced Baker in her thoughts and teachings. She advocated for widespread, local action as a means of change. Her emphasis on a grass roots approach to the struggle for equal rights influenced the success of the modern Civil Rights Movement.[7]

"Participatory Democracy"

In the 1960s, the idea of "Participatory Democracy" was created. It was a new formulation, bringing to the traditional appeal of democracy an innovative tie to broader participation. There were three primary emphases to this new movement:

  • An appeal for grass roots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions
  • The minimization of (bureaucratic) hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership
  • A call for direct action as an answer to fear, isolation, and intellectual detachment[8]
Ella Baker stated:
You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.[9]
Baker's statement advocates a more collectivist model of leadership over the "prevailing messianic style of the period".[10] In essence, what Baker was largely arguing against was the Civil Rights Movement mirroring the organization model of the Black church. The Black church, at the time, had largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, but also that of the Black church.[11]

Work with prominent organizations

NAACP (1938–1953)

In 1938 she began her long association with the

  • Biographical piece as part of SNCC-People
  • The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
  • Ella J. Baker Biography NC State University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Oral History Interviews with Ella Baker [1], [2] at Oral Histories of the American South
  • Ella Baker - Freedom Bound by Joanne Grant
  • Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker a film by Joanne Grant
  • Ella Baker: Information from
  • Ella Baker papers, 1926-1986 at New York Public Library
  • "Ella Baker," One Person, One Vote

External links

  • S. G. O’Malley, "Baker, Ella Josephine," American National Biography Online (2000).
  • G. J. Barker Benfield and Catherine Clinton, eds., Portraits of American Women (1991).
  • Ellen Cantarow and Susan O'Malley, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change (1980).
  • Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
  • Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) ISBN 0-8078-2778-9


  1. ^ , February 21, 2013Huffington PostPascal Robert, "Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity"
  2. ^ by Barbara Ransby"Ella Baker and the Black Freedom MovementUniversity of North Carolina Press website "Books:
  3. ^ Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 13–63.
  4. ^ Johnson, Cedric Kwesi. A Woman of Influence, In These Times. Retrieved February 18, 2008.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker, pp. 64–104.
  7. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker
  8. ^ "Women in the Civil Rights Movement", pp. 51-52.
  9. ^ Women in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 51.
  10. ^ Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. South End Press: Cambridge, 2004. p. 159
  11. ^ Abu-Jamal, Mumia. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. South End Press: Cambridge, 2004.
  12. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker, p. 137.
  13. ^ Ransby, p. 139.
  14. ^ Ransby, p. 136.
  15. ^ Ransby, p. 148.
  16. ^ Ransby, p. 137.
  17. ^ Ransby, p. 138.
  18. ^ Ransby, p. 150.
  19. ^ Ransby, pp. 105–158.
  20. ^ Ransby, p. 174.
  21. ^ Ransby, "Ella Baker", p. 175.
  22. ^ Ransby, "Ella Baker", p. 176.
  23. ^ Ransby, pp. 170–175.
  24. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker
  25. ^ Ransby, p. 240.
  26. ^ Ransby, "Ella Baker", p.239.
  27. ^ Women in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 2.
  28. ^ Creating Black Americans, pp. 291.
  29. ^ Creating Black Americans, p. 292.
  30. ^ Ransby, pp. 239–272.
  31. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker, pp. 330–344.
  32. ^ Ransby, Ella Baker
  33. ^ Ransby, p. 231.
  34. ^ Ransby, pp. 209–238, 273–328.
  35. ^ Ransby, pp. 344–374.
  36. ^ Ransby, pp. 101–103.
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ Grant, Joanne, film, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (Icarus Films, 1981)
  41. ^ The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches and firsthand accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954–1990, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Penguin Books, 1991), p. 121.
  42. ^


See also

  • "Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”[39]
  • "Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens." (1964)[40]
  • "The development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group."[41]
  • "Strong people do not need strong leaders."[42]


In 2014 the University of California, Santa Barbara, established a visiting professorship to honor Ella Baker.[37] Shana Redmond was chosen as the first Ella Baker Visiting Professor.[38]

In 2009 Ella Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit strategy and action center based in Oakland, CA, was founded in 1996.

The 1981 documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, directed by Joanne Grant, showed Baker's important role in the civil rights movement.


Ella Baker was a notoriously private person. People close to her did not know that she was married for twenty years to T. J. "Bob" Roberts. Ella though kept her last name [36] She left no diaries.

It is widely written that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other SCLC members, differed in opinion and philosophy. She once claimed that the "movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement". Another speech she made, in which she urged activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay", was widely interpreted as a denunciation of King.

That same year, Ella Baker returned to Angela Davis. She lent her voice to the Puerto Rican independence movement, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and allied herself with a number of women's groups, including the Third World Women's Alliance and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She remained an activist until her death in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.[35]

Final years

[34] (HUAC). Baker viewed socialism as a more humane alternative to capitalism but she had mixed feelings about communism. Still, she became a staunch defender of Anne Braden and her husband Carl and encouraged SNCC to reject red-baiting because she viewed it as divisive and unfair. During the 1960s, Baker participated in a speaking tour and co-hosted several meetings on the importance of linking civil rights and civil liberties.House Un-American Activities Committee, who had been accused of being a communist during the 1950s by the Anne Braden In SCEF, Baker worked closely with her friend, longtime white anti-racist activist [33] From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked on the staff of the

Southern Conference Education Fund (1962–1967)

In 1964 she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. She worked as the coordinator of the Washington office of the MFDP and accompanied a delegation of the MFDP to the National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1964. The group's aim was to challenge the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans to participate in party elections in the South. When MFDP delegates challenged the pro-segregationist, all-white official delegation, a major conflict ensued. The MFDP delegation was not seated, but their influence on the Democratic Party helped to elect many black leaders in Mississippi and forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention.[31]

That same year, on the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend. This was a gathering of sit-in leaders to meet one another and assess their struggles and explore the possibilities for future actions.[25] At this meeting the Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the day. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that would form in the 1960s and 1970s.[30]

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960–1966)

In January 1957, Baker went to Wyatt Tee Walker in April 1960.[23] Baker's job with the SCLC was more frustrating than fruitful. She was unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. She had no solid allies in the office in which she could rely.[24]

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957–1960)

When the opportunity arose in 1946 to return to New York City to care for her niece, she left her position with the national association, but remained a volunteer. She soon joined the New York branch of the NAACP to work on school desegregation and police brutality issues, and became its president in 1952.[15] Her job as president was to supervise the field secretaries and coordinate the national office's work with local groups.[16] Baker's top priority as the new director of branches was to lessen the organization's bureaucracy and Walter Francis White's dominating role within it. She was not fond of the fact that the program was more or less channeled through the executive secretary and the national office and not the people out in the field. She lobbied for a reduction in the rigid hierarchy within the association and the placing of more power in the hands of capable and heroic leaders. She also advocated for giving greater responsibility and autonomy to local branches.[17] Between 1944 and 1946, Baker directed revolutionary leadership conferences in several major cities such as Chicago and Atlanta. She got top officials to deliver lectures, offer welcoming remarks, and conduct workshops.[18] She resigned in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.[19]

While traveling throughout the South on behalf of the NAACP, Baker met hundreds of black people and solidified and establish lasting, enduring relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach to political work was one important aspect of Baker’s effort to recruit more members, men and women, into the NAACP.[14] Baker formed a network of people in the south who would go on to be important for the fight for civil rights. Whereas some organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker’s ability to treat everyone with respect helped her in her recruiting. Baker fought to make the NAACP more democratic and in tune with the needs of the people. She tried to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front.

She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization. [13]

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