Each February children in American schools learn about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and many other prolific figures of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Yet little is known about Ella Jo Baker.
Born in 1913, Baker was exposed to the many prejudices of the turbulent South. As a child, growing up in the town of Littleton, N.C., she was deeply impacted by the stories that her grandparents told of slavery.
This inspired her to become active in improving the lives of her people.
From a young age, Baker was active in fighting for civil rights. After attending Shaw University in North Carolina, she became the National Director of the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League. This was her first major role as an advocate for civil rights.
Later, she would become a field reporter for the NAACP. Baker worked to recruit new members and was known for her rapport with rural southerners.
According to www.ellabakercenter.org, Baker believed in the NAACP’s cause, however, she was opposed to its “male ministerial” leadership. She was a strong-minded, out-spoken woman, who did not fit in with the “docile” wives and volunteers of the organization. For this reason, she resigned from her position and moved to New York. She eventually became president of the NAACP’s New York chapter and defied traditional leadership roles.
In 1955, she returned to the South to participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and work with the newly organized Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, she had qualms with the hierarchy of the leadership system, which, to her, seemed to be sexist in many aspects.
In 1960, when a group of students planned sit-ins at a local lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., Baker decided to get involved. The SCLC also showed interest in this group, but Baker prevented the students from joining for fear that their enthusiasm would be squelched by the strong leadership of the SCLC.
Baker organized a meeting for the students at her alma mater that resulted in a new organization called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. This was a grassroots organization in which the group made decisions as a whole.
“Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” Baker said of the organization.
SNCC made great strides in the civil rights movement, participating in the Freedom Rides (which fought interstate transit segregation), black voter registration and freedom marches organized by the SCLC.
“[SNCC’s] projects and organizational structure served as both a training ground and a model by which other student protesters organized other social protest movements such as the anti-Vietnam War and women’s liberation movements.
“All of this was made possible due to the intervention and guidance of a true American hero, Ms. Ella Baker,” Said Joseph R. Fitzgerald, a teaching assistant in the African-American Studies department.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” Ella Baker (1913-1986).