Ella Baker: My civil rights heroine
By Marian Wright Edelman
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 son, we, who believe in freedom, cannot rest until this happens.
— Ella Baker
The quote above is from Ella Baker 50 years ago, and like so much about this visionary civil rights leader it is still just as relevant today. She was talking about the murders of Civil Rights Movement workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who disappeared together in Mississippi in June 1964. Chaney was Black, and Goodman and Schwerner were white.
Ella Baker was an outspoken warrior against injustice and inequality her entire life, and always, always unwilling to rest. Her words continue to be a rallying cry for all of us who believe our nation still does not see and value Black and white children’s lives the same way.
I first met Mrs. Baker during my senior year at Spelman College in Atlanta. She was a staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was often a powerful behind-the-scenes adviser to close colleagues like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ella Baker believed in servant leadership and shared leadership rather than charismatic leadership and encouraged young people like me to find and lift our own voices and join them with others.
She was instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and fought to make sure we retained our own independent organization as students rather than simply becoming the youth arm of the Dr. King-led SCLC. Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, and many other fellow student activists and young activists were all influenced by her example, counsel and convening and share a special debt of reverence and gratitude.
Ella Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Va. She had a strict mother, a warm and caring father, and a large extended family of grandparents, uncles, and aunts who shared what they had with the poor. She was a fighter and as a child beat up white children who called her names. Since there was no schooling for Black children beyond elementary years in her area, she went off to boarding school at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., and was valedictorian of her high school and college graduating classes.
She moved to Harlem, got caught up in its excitement, and went everywhere to hear lectures and speeches and read in libraries to learn everything she could. After working as a domestic and as a waitress, she got a job with the Negro National News published by George Schuyler who later recommended her for a job at the NAACP. She rapidly rose through NAACP ranks. “Wherever she went,” her biographer and friend Joanne Grant wrote in “Ella Baker: Freedom Bound,” “she created a whirlwind, leaving a scatter of papers, notes, leaflets, church programs, and phone numbers in her wake. . . She never let up her struggle to increase the role of the rank and file.”
Ella Baker pushed for organizational structure and rules in the NAACP just as she did later at SCLC and SNCC. Ella Baker was the one who sat down with Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson to discuss how to create a continuing movement out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to SCLC’s formation. As the first staff member hired for SCLC, it was Ella Baker who tried to put the new organization in operating order so that Dr. King was not just a leader who reacted to and jumped from one event to the next. She worked to give SCLC the capacity to plan and implement action. And Ella Baker was the one who convinced Dr. King to bring me and about 200 other Black college students who had been arrested for engaging in sit-in protests to open up lunch counters around the South to a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University. My first plane ride ever was from Atlanta to Raleigh for that meeting. SNCC was the meeting’s result.
Ella Baker was fully aware of but unintimidated by the men she worked with who devalued the advice of women and sometimes resented her forcefulness, prodding and “mothering.” She made no special effort to be ingratiating. She labored at SCLC as she had at the NAACP to raise money, conduct voter registration drives, speak to citizens groups (sometimes ten times a day), and travel to community after community to help people help themselves.
I remember her counsel as I think about sustaining and strengthening the Children’s Defense Fund’s mission today and future tomorrow for the long haul struggle to create and maintain a level playing field for every child. I learned from her the crucial importance of training a successor generation of young servant-leaders, which has been a strong priority of CDF’s since its inception.
We all honor Ella Baker by keeping her belief in freedom and equality alive until it becomes reality for every mother’s child.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.