In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, the organizer Ella Baker said: “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Bernice Johnson Reagon later wrote “Ella’s Song” based on those words, made famous by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Baker’s words continue to resonate today, as we witness the resurgence of a new civil rights movement, sparked by the police killings of young black men, but rooted in the underlying grievances of racial injustice around jobs, housing, schools, and the criminal justice system. As the protests spread from Ferguson to cities around the country, today’s young activists can learn much from Baker’s ideas. Working behind the scenes, she helped transform the Southern sit-in protests into a powerful movement for racial justice, led by young people with lots of anger and determination, but little political experience.
Late in the afternoon of February 1, 1960, four young black men—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro—visited the local Woolworth’s store. They purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then they sat down at the store’s lunch counter and ordered coffee. “I’m sorry,” said the waitress. “We don’t serve Negroes here.”
The students refused to give up their seats until the store closed. The local media reported the sit-in on television and in the newspapers. The four students returned the next day with more students. By February 5, about 300 students had joined the protest, generating more media attention and inspiring students at other colleges. By the end of March, sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace.
Over Easter weekend, April 16 to 18, many of those students came to Baker’s alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., to discuss how to capitalize on the growing momentum. The fruit of the meeting was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would expand the sit-in campaign, but also use other tactics, including freedom rides and voter registration drives, to dismantle segregation. SNCC reinvigorated the civil rights movement.
Many accounts report that the Greensboro protest “sparked” or “catalyzed” the sit-in movement that led to SNCC’s founding. But in the middle of all this was Ella Baker, a 57-year old veteran organizer. She had spent decades traveling throughout the South for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Long before there were Rolodexes, email, and Facebook, she was famous for her vast social network. She gently encouraged the young activists to build a movement from these isolated local protests.
Many of the young civil rights activists called her “Fundi,” a Swahili title for a master technician who oversees apprentices, to acknowledge Baker’s role as their mentor. She eschewed a visible role, concentrating on patiently training the next generation of social change leaders.
Born in 1903, Baker grew up in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Her mother, a deeply religious former teacher, tutored Ella at home and coached her in public speaking. As a child, Ella was part of a supportive and tightly knit black community, where friends, relatives, and neighbors helped each other out. Her grandfather mortgaged the family farm to help feed families in need. For high school, Baker’s parents sent her to the boarding school affiliated with Shaw University. She remained at Shaw for college, edited the student newspaper, and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927.
She moved to Harlem, where financial hardship forced Baker to set aside her dream of getting a graduate degree in sociology. Harlem was a hotbed of radical activism, and Baker soon got involved in local groups working on behalf of tenants and consumers. In 1931, she became national director of the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, which sponsored cooperative buying clubs and grocery stores both to reduce prices and to bring people together for collective action. In her next job, funded by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, she organized consumer cooperatives among housing project residents. In 1935, she wrote an exposé of the exploitation of black domestic servants for the NAACP journal Crisis.
Baker started working for the NAACP in 1938 and three years later became its assistant field secretary. For five years, she traveled throughout the South, recruiting new members, working with local leaders to strengthen their chapters, and helping them organize campaigns against lynching, for equal pay for black teachers, and for job training. Rosa Parks, an active NAACP member in Montgomery, Alabama, attend one of Baker’s leadership-training workshops.
At the time, the NAACP’s leadership was dominated by middle-class black businessmen, male professionals and ministers, but most of its grassroots activists were working-class women and men. Baker’s experiences convinced her that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” She worked to cultivate what she called “group leadership” in contrast to leadership by charismatic figures or the professional class.
Soon after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott erupted, Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson (a close adviser to Martin Luther King) used their connections with northern liberals and unions to establish In Friendship, which raised funds for the boycott campaign. They talked with King about establishing a new organization to build similar campaigns throughout the South. This was the genesis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which catapulted King from local to national leadership. Rustin convinced Baker to run the new organization.
Baker bristled at the sexism and outsize egos of the ministers (including King) who ran SCLC and treated her as if she were the hired help. She was on the brink of resigning from SCLC when the student sit-in movement began in early 1960.
Baker wrote, and she and King cosigned, the invitation letter to SNCC’s founding meeting. Their letter explained that the purpose of the meeting was “to share experience gained in recent protest demonstrations and to help chart future goals for effective action.” They assured participants that although “adult freedom fighters” would be present “for counsel and guidance,” the conference would be “youth centered.”
Baker expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up. She enlisted as key speaker James Lawson, a theology student at Vanderbilt University who had organized workshops on nonviolence for students in Nashville, Tennessee, and had helped lead the sit-ins in that city. During the conference, folksinger Guy Carawan introduced a new version of “We Shall Overcome,” which soon became the civil rights movement’s anthem. In her closing speech, “More Than a Hamburger,” Baker pushed the students to dream of how their sit-ins could develop into larger efforts to challenge racism in “every aspect of life.”
SNCC might have quickly disintegrated had Baker not nurtured it and helped the students learn to run the organization on their own. She resigned from SCLC and worked as a SNCC volunteer. The volunteer staff put out a newsletter, Student Voice, that helped give the new group an identity and spread the word. One of the first checks sent to help SNCC came from Eleanor Roosevelt.
As Baker guided SNCC’s young activists, she reminded them of her belief in radical democracy: “People did not really need to be led; they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves.” Reflecting on Baker’s talent for listening to everybody and then summarizing what was most important, former SNCC chair Charles McDew recalled, “Somebody may have spoken for 8 hours, and 7 hours and 53 minutes [of it] was utter bullshit, but 7 minutes was good. She taught us to glean out the 7 minutes.”
In 1964, Baker went to Mississippi to participate in SNCC’s Freedom Summer project that brought over a thousand college student volunteers to the state to register black voters and help lead “freedom schools.” That summer, hundreds of volunteers were arrested; racist thugs bombed 67 churches, homes, and stores. Three of the volunteers—black Mississippian James Chaney and white radicals Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—were murdered by segregationist vigilantes. The murders drew national media attention. When Baker was asked her reaction, she said those immortal words: “The unfortunate thing is that it took this…to make the rest of the country turn its eyes on the fact that there were other (black) bodies lying in the swamps of Mississippi. Until the killing of a black mother’s son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
The summer campaign culminated in a mock election organized by SNCC. Blacks elected an integrated slate of 68 members, under the banner of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), to challenge the official all-white delegation at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City in August. Baker helped enlist support from liberal delegates from around the country, but President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of alienating southern white voters, rejected the MFDP’s plan. Instead, he offered MFDP two seats in the state delegation. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, the MFDP rejected the compromise. But the controversy pressured the party to change its rules for subsequent conventions to require more women and minority delegates. And despite its frustrations with the Democratic Party, SNCC and its Freedom Summer project played a key role in pushing LBJ and Congress to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Baker was not pleased with SNCC’s turn toward “black power” in 1966 and gradually drifted away from the organizations, but she continued her political activism—working on school desegregation efforts with the Southern Conference Educational Fund, supporting independence struggles in Puerto Rico and in Africa, and allying herself with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and other women’s rights groups—until her death on her 83rd birthday, December 13, 1986.
Baker would surely be impressed by the current wave of protest against racial justice. She would also urge the activists to make sure they transform their outrage into an ongoing movement that can survive beyond the immediate reaction to the epidemic of police abuses. That means building strong organizations that can identify and train young leaders, mobilize people around both short-term demands (such as videotaping police activities and ending local stop-and-frisk practices) and conduct campaigns for longer-term policy changes (such as repealing Stand Your Ground laws, sentencing reform, felon disenfranchisement, voter suppression, and living wages) at the national, state and local levels.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). Ella Baker is one of the people profiled in the book.