As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s remember a woman who made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s, but may not be as well-known as others like Rosa Parks, Mary McCloud Bethune and Dorothy Height.
Although a center for human rights in Oakland, California, is named in honor of Ella Baker, who was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, she is largely unknown by many outside the movement, as well as activists and academics.
Who was Ella Baker?
Ella Jo Baker was born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Growing up in North Carolina, she developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery.
She studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, Baker moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations.
In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop Black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women’s organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”
Baker worked in the South as a field organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the mid-1950s. After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other clergymen founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, King asked Baker to establish its national office and serve as its executive director.
Baker left the SCLC after the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a group of Black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter where they had been denied service on Feb. 1, 1960.
In April 1960 at Shaw University, she organized the conference for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which emerged from a wave of student sit-ins to protest segregation and became one of the major Civil Rights Movement organizations of the 1960s.
During the campaign to register Blacks as voters in Mississippi, Baker helped to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The party was formed before the 1964 Democratic National Convention by Black Democrats who were barred from the Mississippi delegation.
Baker’s views are still relevant today.
Baker believed voting was one key to social change, which is still true today. We must use our vote to influence the policies and laws that impact our lives.
She fought for the right to be heard in a male-dominated movement with strong egos.
And finally, another reason why Baker stands out among past leaders is her belief in the power of grassroots action.
‘’You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me,’’ reported the New York Times in her obituary. ‘’The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.’’
Those words sum up Baker’s view on how to create change. She believed that it is important to develop the people to advocate for themselves to achieve change and not depend on one powerful leader. She was distrustful of charismatic messianic leadership.
This view is still essential to the challenges faced today by those who seek equality and justice.
To be clear, this is not a call for anarchy, but a movement that is not dependent on one “great leader” and top-down leadership.
This is already starting to happen. A wave of first-time minority and women candidates were elected to Congress last November largely in response to President Donald Trump’s divisiveness.
The Time’s Up and #MeToo movement has also put the spotlight on the treatment of women and gender inequality.
These are signs of grassroots movements spreading across the nation for justice and equality that reflect Baker’s organizing philosophy that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s remember the legacy and emulate the example set by unsung civil rights heroine Ella Baker.