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Leading From Behind: Woman Power in the Civil Rights Movement, Part 2.

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

By Rodney Keith Strong J.D.

Presented by Omni-University

Ancestor Ella Baker

Most Americans are familiar with the most prominent male leaders of the Classic Civil Rights movement. During this period, from 1954 to 1968, the African American struggle resulted in an end to legal racial segregation. Leaders such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are well known. But there were many unsung individuals, both men, and women, who contributed and made the movement successful. There are three women who were pivotal and critical to the ultimate success of the movement. Each of the women we highlight, here, altered the course of the Civil Rights movement in essential ways. Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer changed American history and deserve to be better understood and celebrated. This is the second of a three-part series of posts in which I will outline the basic biographies of each of these women and discuss their unique contribution to the movement for racial justice.

Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was one of the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. She was born in Norfolk, Virginia, where her father, Blake Baker, worked for a steamship line. In 1910, when Ella was 7, there was a racist attack on the Black community in Norfolk and her parents decided to move the family back to Littleton, North Carolina hometown of Ella’s mother, Georgiana. Although the racist attack in Norfolk was stoked by racial resentment of Black workers in the shipyard who earned relatively high wages, Ella’s father continued to work for the Norfolk-based steamship line and visit the family in North Carolina whenever he had breaks. The move to North Carolina allowed Ella to live with her formerly enslaved maternal grandmother. Her grandmother's stories of the horrors inflicted on enslaved people honed Ella’s commitment to racial and social justice.

Ella attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated as valedictorian. After college, Ella moved to New York City and lived in Harlem. She married her college sweetheart, T.J. Roberts, and spent her early career working with journalist George Schuyler and later for the Works Progress Administration [WPA]. During this period, now known as the “Harlem Renaissance”, she was friends with John Henrik Clarke and became especially close friends with Pauli Murray.

In 1938, Ella became associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] and, in 1943, rose to the office of National Director of Branches. In her capacity as National Director, Ella established extensive grassroots relationships with NAACP activists all over the country. After leaving her national post to deal with family issues, she became active in the local NAACP in New York.

After the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott opened a new front in the struggle for civil rights, Ella Baker attended a conference that led to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] and became the first staff person of the organization. SCLC was an informal association of preachers across the south which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, it was Ella Baker who provided the structure that made the Southern Christian Leadership Conference an organization!!

Starting in Greensboro, North Carolina, and spreading to college campuses across the south, in 1960, a grassroots sit-in movement to end racial segregation in public accommodations took hold among Black college students. On Easter weekend, April 1960, SCLC hosted a conference organized by Baker with 126 student delegates from 58 institutions located in 12 states. The conference, held in Raleigh at Baker's alma mater, Shaw University, resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] which became the most influential and militant organization in the civil rights movement. Baker gave what delegates considered to be the most influential speech of the conference in which she urged the students not to affiliate with SCLC but rather to chart their own course and to take a grassroots approach to organizing which she preferred. She had already had a front-row seat to what she considered to be the "messianic" style of Black leadership. After the formation of SNCC, Baker resigned from SCLC and worked closely with SNCC.

Baker urged SNCC to form two wings, one for direct action and one for voter registration. Baker was instrumental in coordinating the Freedom Rides of 1961 in which students challenged segregation in interstate transportation. Baker also encouraged SNCC to work with sharecroppers and tenant farmers in communities they targeted across the south. Baker’s motto was, “Strong people don't need strong leaders.".

In 1964, Ella Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party[MFDP]. When the MFDP challenged the segregated all white “official” delegation at the Democratic National Committee, it received national attention. The strong person to emerge from that struggle was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who will be the subject of our final profile in this series. Mrs. Ella Baker, "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement", remained active in the struggle for racial justice until she passed away at the age of 83 on her birthday, December 13, 1986.

Recommended Viewing:

Recommended Reading:

Purchase your books and more from the official bookstore of Omni-University, Afriware Books at the following link: AfriWare Books Website - Store "Lift As You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker" by Patricia Hruby Powell

"Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement 1830-1970" by Lynne Olson

"Freedom Cannot Rest: Ella Baker and the Civil Rights Movement" by Lisa Frederiksen Bohannon

"Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement" by J Todd Moye

"Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" by Barbara Ransby

"We Who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker" by Lea Williams, Young Reader Series

"Ella Baker: A Leader Behind the Scenes ( The History of the Civil Rights Movement)" by Shyrlee Dallard

"Ella Baker: The Forgotten Female Voice…"

J Todd Moye

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Thomas Steven Jones

Powerful smart woman! Great article Mrs. Baker, was strong, fearful. Never heard of her until now. Thank you for sharing and teaching.


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