Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement


Ella Josephine Baker was a giant among civil rights activists. Spanning nearly half the twentieth century, her long and varied career enabled her to touch many lives and leave a unique imprint on the cultural, social, political and economical transitions of both African Americans and society as a whole, specifically during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. In contrast to other leading activists of her day, Baker fervently believed that true leaders rose up from the poor masses to a position of power, and as such she often made special efforts to reach out to the poorest of working class people, as a “fundi”, a teacher and mentor, to bring them into the movement in some capacity. This was her signature style of leadership. Baker worked in some capacity of leadership for the three organizations at the forefront of civil rights activism in the 1960s: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker was a founding member for both the SCLC and the SNCC. Baker’s impassioned, fiery oratory often made her the keynote speaker of choice for rallies and functions around the country, as well as winning her the respect of her activist colleagues and the students she served as a mentor, who affectionately called her “Miss Ella”. Despite her death on December 13, 1986, her eighty-third birthday, Ella Baker’s legacy and “vision of a more just and democratic society” (Ransby, 10), continue to serve as an inspiration and guiding light for the generations that succeeded her.

Ella Baker’s first major job within the civil rights movement was for the NAACP National Office as field secretary, and later as director of branches. The position of field secretary required Baker to travel extensively, but allowed her to begin to forge the relationships that would greatly aid her later in her career. It also allowed her to begin to work with the people whom she admired most; who she would work tirelessly for over the next four decades of her life: “the little people” (Ransby, 113), the average, poor, working class, everyday people. She developed a close rapport with these people easily, because she made herself “accessible, speaking in a familiar language that people could readily understand, and interacting with them in a way that made them feel they were important” (Ransby, 13). Her philosophy from the outset of her political career was always that people did not so much need a leader as “the skills, information and opportunity to lead themselves” (Ransby, 142). Baker’s successful endeavors to raise local awareness and solicit funds for the NAACP as a field secretary lead to her promotion to national director of branches in 1943. Despite the fact that NAACP leaders preferred a man for the job, and skepticism as to the reason for her promotion, Baker continued to work tirelessly to recruit members, raise funds, and foster relationships between branches of the organization, to facilitate the mobilization of people, “on the basis of relationships that held communities together” (Ransby, 117). To this end, Baker would often extend her trips up to several weeks long, in order to stay in an area long enough to develop a good working rapport with each branch and discover the issues that concerned the activists most. To Baker, “the fight for social justice…became a personal as well as political crusade” (Ransby, 125). It is perhaps the personal aspect of this crusade that lead to her official departure from the NAACP National Office in 1946, after it became abundantly clear to her that the organization’s leadership had little tolerance for opinions and political views that differed from the status quo. She felt that the organization was “falling short of its present possibilities; that the full capacities of the staff have...
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