Ella Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist who worked with the NAACP and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia and grew up in North Carolina. Her grandmother would tell her stories about life under slavery, including the fact that she’d been whipped while enslaved for refusing to marry a man chosen by the slave owner. Her grandmother inspired a determination for social justice in her that would shape her entire life. Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927. While at University, she fought against school policies she thought were unfair.
After graduation, Baker moved to New York City where she worked as an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News, she then took a position as editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1931, a year after George Shuyler had founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League (YNCL), Baker became a member, rising to become the group’s national director. The YNCL were founded to develop black economic power through collective planning. Members would pool their funds to get better deals on goods and services. She also taught courses in consumer education, labour history and African history for the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration. Baker immersed herself in politics, protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, supporting the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, founding the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and becoming involved with women’s organisations. Baker befriended many fellow activists, including John Henrik Clarke and Pauli Murray.
In 1940, Baker began working as a field secretary for the NAACP, tasked with travelling to recruit members and raise money. Three years later she became the highest ranking woman in the organisation when named director of branches. Baker forced the NAACP to focus more on local groups, believing that the strength of the organisation grew up from the bottom not the top down. Baker continued to travel the South, creating lasting relationships with those whose homes she slept in, tables she ate and and churches she spoke in. Baker treated everyone she spoke to with respect, and was able to build the membership of the NAACP. Many of her recruits would go on to be important in the fight for civil rights. Between 1944 and 1946 she directed revolutionary leadership conferences in major cities including Chicago and Atlanta.
In 1946, Baker returned to New York City to care for her niece. She continued to be a part of the NAACP and worked with her local branch on issues including school desegregation and police brutality. She also became involved with a number of other organisations, including the New York Urban League. In 1952, she became the President of the New York branch, and continued to push forward her ideas that local branches needed to be given more responsibility and greater autonomy in order to truly succeed. In 1953, Baker ran unsuccessfully for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket. Two years later, Baker co-founded the organisation In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. In 1957, Baker was asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as executive director. She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship and was highly respected for her ability to organise.
Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. In 1960, Baker organised a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University who had refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service. The meeting led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker offered her support and council to the student activists and was one of SNCC’s highly revered adult advisors, becoming known as the “Godmother of SNCC”. Baker was instrumental in the 1961 region-wide freedom rides and worked closely with black sharecroppers and others throughout the South. Baker’s ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s. Her ideas influenced the philosophy of participatory democracy put forth by 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.
In 1964, Baker helped to organise the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the Mississippi Democratic Party who held segregationist views. She worked at the Washington office of the MFDP as a coordinator and in 1964, was party of a delegation of party members who attended the National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although the MFDP delegation were not seated, their influence on the Democratic Party led to many black leaders being elected in Mississippi and forced a change in the rules so that women and minorities were allowed to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention. During this time, Baker also worked on the staff of the South Conference Education Fund (SCEF) which helped black and white people in the South work together for social justice. The organisation lobbied for implementation of President Truman’s civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism.
In her later years, Baker returned to New York where she continued her activists. She collaborated with Arthur Kinoy to form the Mass Party Organising Committee, a socialist organisation. In 1972, she travelled the country in support of the “Free Angela” campaign, which fought for the release of fellow activist Angela Davis. Baker supported the Puerto Rico independence movement, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and continued to be involved 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 involved in her activism until her death in 1986. In 1996, the Ella Baker Centre for Human Rights, a non-profit created to “build on her legacy by giving people opportunities and skills to work together to strengthen our communities so that all of us can thrive.” In 2009, she was honoured on a U.S. postage stamp and in 2014, the University of California, Santa Barbara established a visiting professorship to honour her.