As the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Ella Baker helped shape and mold a movement that would change the world. Baker was the middle child of three born in Norfolk, Virginia, before moving to North Carolina following a race riot. She grew up listening to her grandmother tell stories from slavery, stoking her quest for social justice. After graduating high school, she attended the HBCU Shaw University, where she graduated with honors.
Following graduation, Baker moved to Harlem to seek work but got involved in multiple civil justice organizations. Her time in Harlem was fruitful as she balanced her work at the National Negro News and the WPA with her community efforts as a member of the Young Negroes Cooperative League. In 1938, the civil rights leader began her longtime association with the NAACP, starting as field secretary before becoming National Director of Branches from 1944 to 1946. She eventually stepped down from the position for family reasons before returning to the New York branch as its president (the first woman to hold said position).
Baker desired to move back down South, leading her to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia. The activist helped to form the influential civil rights organization, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with Bayard Ustin, C.K. Steele, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and Ralph Abernathy. She played a significant role by framing the issues and setting the group’s agenda. However, she faced resistance from the predominately male leadership, including Dr. King, upon her appointment as interim executive director. This schism and differences in activism philosophies led her to leave the organization in 1960.
Her frustration turned to action as she helped form the student-led activist organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with students at her alma mater. Baker mentored future civil rights leaders like Julian Bond, Diane Nash, and Stokely Carmichael. At the same time, she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to fight for voting rights. She backed away from SNCC as the organization pivoted toward the Black Power movement.
In her later years, Baker worked for the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), where she aided in getting federal civil rights legislation passed by Congress. She eventually returned to New York, continuing her activist work through various causes and organizations. The civil rights leader died on her 83rd birthday, December 13, 1986, from natural causes.
Ella Baker served as a voice for those who faced discrimination and prejudice in trying to advance society. She fought for Black women to have a seat at the table in the fight for civil rights and equality. Unfortunately, her contributions as a civil rights leader weren’t the proper credence during or after her time. While history may refer to her as a footnote, I will say, “Ms. Baker, we appreciate all you did to make life better for future generations.”
Give light and people will find the way.Ella Baker