In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, the great organizer Ella Baker said: "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." Bernice Johnson Reagon later wrote "Ella's Song" based on those words, made famous by the a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Baker's words certainly resonate today, as we witness the rebirth of a new civil rights movement, sparked by the police killings of young black men, but rooted in the underlying grievances of racial injustice around jobs, housing, schools, and the criminal justice system. As the protests spread from Ferguson to Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland and around the country, today's young activists can learn much from Ella Baker's ideas. Working behind the scenes, she helped transform the Southern sit-in protests into a powerful movement for racial justice, led by young people with lots of anger and determination, but little political experience.
Late in the afternoon of February 1, 1960, four young black men -- Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro -- visited the local Woolworth's store. They purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then they sat down at the store's lunch counter and ordered coffee. "I'm sorry," said the waitress. "We don't serve Negroes here."
The four students refused to give up their seats until the store closed. The local media soon arrived and reported the sit-in on television and in the newspapers. The four students returned the next day with more students, and by February 5 about 300 students had joined the protest, generating more media attention. Their action inspired students at other colleges across the South to follow their example. By the end of March sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace.
Over Easter weekend, April 16 to 18, many of those students came to Baker's alma mater, Shaw University, a black college in Raleigh, North Carolina, to discuss how to capitalize on the growing momentum of the sit-ins. The fruit of the meeting was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization to translate these local actions into a wider movement. SNCC would expand the sit-in campaign, but it also used other tactics, such as freedom rides and voter registration drives, to tear down segregation. SNCC's work reinvigorated the civil rights movement.
Many accounts report that the Greensboro protest "sparked" or "catalyzed" the sit-in movement that led to SNCC's founding. But in the middle of all this was Ella Baker, a 57-year-old veteran organizer. She had spent decades traveling throughout the South for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Long before there were Rolodexes, e-mail, and Facebook, she was famous for her vast social network of contacts. She gently encouraged the young activists to build a movement from these isolated local protests. It is no accident that SNCC's founding convention took place at Baker's alma mater.
Many of the young civil rights activists called her "Fundi," a Swahili title for a master technician who oversees apprentices, to acknowledge Baker's role as their mentor. She eschewed a visible role, concentrating on patiently training the next generation of social change leaders. She spent more than 50 years as an organizer but was less well-known than many of those she trained and nurtured with the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and other organizations.
Born in 1903, Baker grew up in rural North Carolina not far from where her grandparents had been slaves. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Her mother, a former teacher and deeply religious, tutored Ella at home and coached her in public speaking. As a child, Ella was part of a supportive and tightly knit black community, where friends, relatives, and neighbors helped each other out. Her grandfather mortgaged the family farm to help feed families in need. For high school, Baker's parents sent her to the boarding school affiliated with Shaw University. She remained at Shaw for college, edited the student newspaper, and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927.
Then she moved to Harlem. Financial hardship forced Baker to set aside her dream of getting a graduate degree in sociology. Despite her college education, her race and gender limited her job prospects, and she wound up waiting on tables and working in a factory. She began to write articles for the American West Indian News and in 1932 found a job as an editorial assistant and office manager for the Negro National News.
The suffering brought on by the Depression troubled her deeply. Harlem was a hotbed of radical activism, and Baker soon got involved in local groups working on behalf of tenants and consumers. In 1931 she organized the Young Negroes' Cooperative League and became its national director. The group sponsored cooperative buying clubs and grocery stores both to reduce prices and to bring people together for collective action. In her next job, paid for by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, she organized consumer cooperatives among housing project residents. She taught adult literacy and consumer education, often with a focus on young women and housewives. In 1935 she wrote an exposé of the exploitation of black domestic servants for the NAACP journal Crisis.
Baker started working for the NAACP in 1938 and three years later became its assistant field secretary. For five years, she traveled throughout the South, recruiting new members, working with local leaders to strengthen their chapters, and helping them organize campaigns against lynching, for equal pay for black teachers, and for job training. One of the leadership-training workshops she organized was attended by Rosa Parks, an active NAACP member in Montgomery, Alabama.
Baker understood that local activists in the South always risked facing financial and physical threats for their involvement with the civil rights organization. Baker's speech at the NAACP's annual conference in 1942 outlined her focus on identifying concrete, winnable local issues that could build the organization:
What are the things taking place in our community which we should like to see changed? Take that one thing--getting a new school building; registering people to vote; getting bus transportation--take that one thing and work on it and get it done.
At the time, the NAACP's leadership was dominated by middle-class black businessmen, male professionals, and ministers, but most of its grassroots activists were working-class women and men. Baker's experiences convinced her that "strong people don't need strong leaders." She worked to cultivate what she called "group leadership" in contrast to leadership by charismatic figures or by people of higher economic status. She would carry these lessons with her the rest of her life.
In 1946 Baker left her NAACP job and returned to New York City to raise her niece. While working as the Harlem director of the American Cancer Society, she volunteered with the NAACP's New York City chapter, organizing protests demanding school desegregation. In 1952 she was the first woman elected chapter president. In 1951 and 1953 she ran for the New York City Council as a member of the Liberal Party, losing both times. It was the only time she allowed the spotlight to shine on her.
Fannie Lou Hamer singing at MFDP boardwalk rally in Atlantic City in 1964. From left -- Emory Harris, Stokely Carmichael (in hat), Sam Block, Eleanor Holmes, and Ella Baker.
Soon after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott erupted, Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson (a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.) used their connections with northern liberals and unions to establish In Friendship, which raised funds and provided support for the boycott campaign. At the end of 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's segregated bus system was unlawful. The victory could have remained a local triumph rather than a national bellwether. Rustin, however, laid out the idea for building what he called a "mass movement across the South" with "disciplined groups prepared to act as 'nonviolent shock troops.'" Rustin, Levinson and Baker talked extensively with King about establishing a new organization to build similar campaigns throughout the South. This was the genesis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which catapulted King from local to national leadership. Rustin convinced Baker to run the new organization. The initial plan was for her to spend six weeks based in Atlanta, but it turned into a two-and-a-half-year stint.
During this time she had many titles, but she was never given the title of director, which was reserved for a male minister. Baker bristled at the sexism and outsize egos of the ministers who ran SCLC, including King. Despite her long experience as a successful grassroots organizer, they treated her as if she were the hired help. Moreover, King and his fellow ministers lacked the time and experience to build a grassroots organization. SCLC drew on the reputations of its ministers to draw attention to racial injustice and to help sponsor voter registration drives, but it never became a mass-membership organization.
Baker was on the brink of resigning from SCLC when the student sit-in movement began in early 1960. Baker wrote, and she and King cosigned, the invitation letter to SNCC's founding meeting.
Baker took responsibility for organizing the event. The SCLC leaders figured that they could recruit its leaders into forming a youth branch of the organization, but Baker counseled the young activists to shape their own organization. She expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up. These included black students from 56 colleges and high schools across the South, a handful of white southern students, and students from northern and midwestern colleges (including representatives of Students for a Democratic Society) who had been organizing pickets at Woolworth's stores to show support for the sit-ins.
Baker made sure that students were well represented among the speakers. She enlisted as key speaker James Lawson, a theology student at Vanderbilt University who had organized workshops on nonviolence for students in Nashville, Tennessee, and had helped lead the sit-ins in that city.
In her closing speech, "More Than a Hamburger," Baker pushed the students to dream of how their lunch-counter sit-ins could develop into larger efforts to challenge racism in "every aspect of life." She emphasized the importance of growing grassroots group leadership rather than relying on the charisma of any individual, a not-too-subtle dig at King and his fellow ministers. The SCLC ministers asked Baker to convince the students to become part of their organization. Baker refused, but with her blessing, the students voted to form their own organization, SNCC.
SNCC might have quickly disintegrated had Baker not nurtured it and helped the students learn to run the organization on their own. She resigned from SCLC and worked as a volunteer for SNCC, supporting herself as a paid consultant for the Atlanta YMCA. She recruited Jane Stembridge, a white Virginian who was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, to run the Atlanta office. With Baker's support, Bob Moses, a black math teacher from New York who traveled to Atlanta to volunteer for SCLC's voter registration drive, soon defected to SNCC.
The volunteer staff put out a newsletter, Student Voice, that helped give the new group an identity and helped spread the word. One of the first checks sent to help the new organization came from Eleanor Roosevelt.
As Baker guided SNCC's young activists, she reminded them of her belief in radical democracy: "People did not really need to be led; they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves." As students took on more leadership responsibility and worked on the freedom rides and voter registration, they put her ideas into practice and continued to ask Baker for advice. Those attending SNCC's marathon meetings recall that Baker, who by that time had thirty years of experience in movement building, would sit silently much of the time and then make a few comments. Reflecting on Baker's talent for listening to everybody and then summarizing what was most important, former SNCC chair Charles McDew explained, "Somebody may have spoken for 8 hours, and 7 hours and 53 minutes [of it] was utter bullshit, but 7 minutes was good. She taught us to glean out the 7 minutes."
In 1964, Baker went to Mississippi to participate in SNCC's Freedom Summer project that brought over a thousand college student volunteers to the state to register black voters and help lead "freedom schools." That summer, hundreds of volunteers were arrested; 67 churches, homes, and stores were bombed by racist thugs. Three of the volunteers -- black Mississippian James Chaney and white radicals Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were murdered by segregationist vigilantes. The murders, including the hunt for the bodies of the victims, drew national media attention. When Baker was asked her reaction, she said:
The unfortunate thing is that it took this... to make the rest of the country turn its eyes on the fact that there were other (black) bodies lying in the swamps of Mississippi. Until the killing of a black mother's son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
The summer campaign culminated in a mock election organized by SNCC volunteers across the state. Black voters elected an integrated slate of 68 members, under the banner of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Their plan was to attend the Democratic Party's national convention in Atlantic City in August and ask the credentials committee to recognize the MFDP. This was a direct challenge to the official all-white delegation, which brutally excluded blacks from voting.
Baker, along with John Lewis, Marion Barry, and others, began contacting Friends of SNCC and other civil rights activists around the country, asking their help enlisting Democratic Party officials, elected officials and convention delegates to support the MFDP delegation. By the beginning of August, they report that nine state delegations from the North and West, and 25 Democratic members of Congress, had promised to support MFDP's claim to represent the state at the convention. On August 6, Baker gave the keynote speech at the MFDP's statewide convention at the Masonic Temple in Jackson, reminding them that their struggle in Atlantic City was only one part of a broader movement. When they arrived in Atlantic City, the MFDP voiced their demands, made famous by Fannie Lou Hamer's moving testimony about her harsh life as a sharecropper on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation and the retaliation inflicted on her for simply trying to register to vote.
President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of alienating southern white voters, rejected the MFDP challenge but offered a compromise, offering them two seats in the state delegation. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, the MFDP rejected the compromise, but the controversy pressured the Democratic Party to change its rules for subsequent conventions to require more women and minority delegates. SNCC's Freedom Summer campaign had not only helped turn the nation's eyes on southern racism and the repression of civil rights activists, but also played a key role in the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, one of the movement's landmark victories.
Baker was not pleased with SNCC's turn toward "black power" in 1966 under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael. She gradually drifted away from SNCC, but for the remainder of her life, she continued to work on progressive issues. She spent several years working on school desegregation efforts with the Southern Conference Educational Fund. She also expanded her work to include independence struggles in Puerto Rico and in Africa. She also allied herself with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and other women's rights groups. She remained an activist until her death on her 83rd birthday -- December 13, 1986.
John Lewis, a SNCC leader and now a Congressman from Atlanta, recalled that Baker "was much older in terms of age, but I think in terms of ideas and philosophy and commitment she was one of the youngest persons in the movement."
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). Ella Baker is one of the people profiled in the book.