Ella Baker and the Politics of Hope -- Lessons From the Civil Rights Movement

As I argued recently, Pope Francis' climate encyclical, Laudato Si, shows powerful resources in Catholic and other faith traditions for addressing the challenge of climate change. But in immediate terms, it does little to affect the pessimistic public mood.

In June, the NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll found that only 31 percent of American adults believe the country is headed in the right direction. Gallup polling for years has shown a steady decline in public trust of institutions. Recent polls show that only the military (with 72%) and small business (with 67%) have strong majorities with "a great deal" and "quite a lot" of confidence. Other major institutions are widely viewed with suspicion. The figures of confidence for schools is 31%, for banks, 28%, for big business, 21 % and for Congress less than 10 %.

Such discouragement breeds a mood of scarcity, awakening what Nancy Cantor calls the "sleeping ghosts" of "hibernating bigotry," a concept proposed by Rupert Nacoste.

But there are important lessons from our history and recent experiences for turning around fatalism and creating foundations for renewed hope. In this blog I address the insights of Ella Baker in the freedom movement. In subsequent blogs I take up insights of Martin Luther King, and then describe lessons from the partnerships of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship over the last 20 years.

Ella Baker was a brilliant "behind the scenes" grassroots organizer in the civil rights movement. Barbara Ransby, in her book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, argues that she was "one of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement."

Born in Norfolk Virginia in 1903, Baker grew up in Littleton, North Carolina, hearing her grandmother tells stories of slave revolts. After graduating from Shaw University in 1927 as valedictorian, she moved to New York. She was shaped by the vibrant intellectual, civic and political activist culture of the Harlem Renaissance.

She went to work for the NAACP, the leading civil rights organization, in 1940 and became director of its local branches in 1943, travelling widely across the South. As Ransby put it, "She pushed the organization to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns on the local level. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She believed that the work of the branches was the life blood of the NAACP."

Baker also developed a bird's eye view of black communities in the South. She reported to her close friends Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson in New York that the region was showing a dramatic increase in local activism. The three talked about possibilities for a new movement - and realized it would take a broader consciousness among local folks that they were not alone if collective hope was to emerge sufficient to overcome decades of fatalism and despair.

When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed in 1957 in the wake of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott with Martin Luther King as its president, Rustin, advisor and mentor of King, succeeded in making Baker the first executive secretary. She moved to Atlanta, where the organization was located, with an explicit mission developed by herself with Rustin and Levinson: to create a larger consciousness of the fledgling movement. Her first campaign, a voter registration effort called the Crusade For Citizenship, was a twenty city project to make visible the grassroots ferment, to the nation and most importantly to local leaders and activists.

In 1960, following the first student sit-ins at North Carolina A&T college in Greensboro, SCLC convened a meeting of students from across the south. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee emerged and Baker saw potential to develop a style of grassroots leadership. She soon left SCLC to work with the new organization, and helped the young activists take up voter registration, work with the Congress on Racial Equality to organize "freedom rides" to desegregate bus stations, and help organize black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.

I was on staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in 1964 and 1965, and only met Baker once. But she was a legendary figure in the movement and I heard many stories from my peers about her keen organizing and political philosophy. Baker was convinced that "strong people don't need strong leaders." She was dedicated to principles of self-organizing agency. "People under the heel," she said, "had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get (out) from under their oppression."

Baker was also the principal architect of the concept of "participatory democracy," the idea that people have the right to participate in decisions which affect their lives. Taken up by the Students for a Democratic Society, the vision inspired students throughout the 1960s and reverberated across the world.
In Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Barbara Ransby argues that Baker and King had radically different philosophies of change. For Baker change came from the bottom up. For King, it was "top down." But in my own experience the differences were more of emphasis than of kind, and both played necessary roles.

King, like other SCLC leaders, was a magnificent artist of what can be called "cultural organizing." They opened immense public space by effectively contesting the individualist, consumerist, white-centered version of the American dream in mainstream public culture, a version which had taken hold in the 1950s, and by articulating an inclusive, communitarian alternative.

King also was a staunch supporter of the Citizenship Education Program, SCLC's grassroots leadership effort for which I worked. He eloquently brought stories of the dignity and heroism of local folks to the attention of the nation. Like Baker, he was also a keen observer and strategist of the psychology of hope.

I describe some of his contributions in my next blog.