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Ella Baker Legacy Energizes
Movement for Black Lives

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

"We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest". Mural on the wall of row houses in Philadelphia. The artist is Parris Stancell, sponsored by the Freedom School Mural Arts Program. Left to right; Malcolm Shabazz (Malcolm X), Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass. The quote above the pictures,"We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest", is from Ella Baker, a founder of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), a civil rights group. which amongst other contributions, helped to coordinate "Freedom Rides"in the early 1960's. Photo by Tony Fischer - Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Ella Baker was sixty-one years old when her comrade, historian Howard Zinn, wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists: "Ella Baker is more responsible than any other single individual for the birth of the new abolitionists as an organized group, and who remains the most tireless, most modest, and wisest activist I know in the struggle for human rights."

In a recent talk, Cornel West said: “There is no civil rights movement without the witness and example of Ella Baker."

Ella Baker, however, has yet to receive full, mainstream public recognition for her contribution to American democracy, especially the co-founding and guidance of the most effective, innovative civil rights organization of the 20th century, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee -- SNCC. While it is true that the media demonizes Malcolm X and sanitizes Dr. King, Ella Baker, a Black woman, is simply ignored.

In her new book, FROM #BLACKLIVESMATTER TO BLACK LIBERATION, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “Black women have been central to every significant campaign for Black rights and freedom. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash ... were critical to the development of the civil rights movement, but that movement is still primarily known by its male leaders.”

Ella Baker was three decades older (She was called a "middle-aged hell-raiser"), but young activists trusted her because she showed more confidence in the audacity and inventiveness of youth than in the expertise of established civil rights organizations. The students affectionately called her "Miss Baker" (though she was married). Her nickname was "Fundi," a Swahili term for a person who hands down skills and wisdom from one community to another. Baker defied stereotypes. She was a militant revolutionary who wore elegant hats and dressed as if she were attending church.

The founding of SNCC at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1960 changed the tone and direction of the civil rights movement. The conference, which drew hundreds of students from throughout the South, was tense. Male leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to oversee the fledgling organization, to put SNCC under their control. Baker was the only woman to speak at the Plenary Session. She warned students against bureaucracy and co-optation. She insisted on the autonomy of the students, who had already demonstrated their brilliance and savvy tactics in the early sit-ins. "I knew that young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me," Baker said years later. Each generation offers a new lens through which to view the contours of the future.

SNCC did not repudiate the legal battles of the past. It went beyond them. Baker’s democratic, grassroots practice permeated SNCC. By shifting the focus from appeals to the elite to organizing the disenfranchised and the poor, SNCC changed the center of gravity in the movement. Black communities were not helpless. They were ready to fight. Mississippi historian John Dittmer wrote: "Not since Reconstruction had anyone seriously proposed that illiterate sharecroppers had the same right to the franchise as did teachers, lawyers, and doctors."

Mentored by Baker, SNCC turned away from charismatic, top-down leaders to group-centered leadership. And it put direct, mass action at the center of strategy. SNCC students organized new sit-ins at segregated facilities, carried out the historic freedom rides in the face of violence, and registered black voters in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan in rural Mississippi. SNCC’s assault on Jim Crow in the 60s did more to abolish the legal apparatus of white supremacy than years of well-financed legalistic and professionally run campaigns.

SNCC’s influence extended far beyond black communities in the South. Tom Hayden participated in SNCC meetings and actions, and he saw "participatory democracy" in action before he wrote the SDS Port Huron Statement. In the SDS Bulletin he asked: "Can the methods of SNCC be applied to the North?"

Baker’s Impact on Women in SNCC

After Barbara Ransby published her comprehensive biography Ella Baker and the Black Liberation Movement in 2003, social activists intensified their community organizing and focused on the most marginalized sections of the American system. Ransby devotes an entire section to the role of women in SNCC.

"What was new about SNCC was its embrace of women as key participants in mass protests and as leaders at the center of the struggle," Ransby writes. "The emergence of women as indigenous leaders transformed gender relations within the movement."

In the Baker ethos of sisterhood and camaraderie, the norms of male dominance and female deference were undermined. The SNCC experience challenged men to rethink their own manhood and masculinity.

Baker did not preach feminism, as the term came to be used in the '70s -- she did not preach at all -- but her example did transform the personal lives of the female freedom fighters, who became involved in all phases of SNCC operations

Women’s extensive involvement in direct action and mass protests set SNCC apart from many past models of change.

The effect on young women like Diane Nash, who was raised in middle-class respectability, was profound. Nash became SNCC’s direct-action organizer and coordinated the last phases of the historic Freedom Rides. Decades later, she looked back on Baker’s mentorship. "My relatives were quite worried about my safety ... . Older people would look at you and say you were young and you would calm down when you matured. Baker was the first older person I had known who was so progressive. And I needed that reinforcement ... It was really important when things got hot and heavy."

Things got very "hot and heavy" for Nash during the Freedom Rides, when black and white activists rode interstate busses through segregated Southern states in 1961. The heroic riders faced racist mobs who beat them with baseball bats, lead pipes and bicycle chains.

Beatings, bus burnings and arrests brought the freedom rides to a halt in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Concerned with the safety of the riders, civil rights leaders tried to dissuade SNCC from continuing the campaign. There were moments of despondency. To resume the rides, or to end them -- that was the question for Diane Nash. Baker often communicated a sense of history to the students, a long-term vision without which movements cannot be sustained.

Nash and Baker talked by phone on a daily basis. As Nash recalled years later: "Ella would pick me up and dust me off emotionally." After consulting with students in Nashville, where the movement was strong, Diane concluded: "We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." Taking responsibility in her hour of decision, Nash organized a new group to resume the rides.

Baker’s legacy in Black Lives Matter

Today’s Black Lives Matter movement draws extensively from the Black radical tradition, and the life of Ella Baker continues to swell the rolling waves of resistance to mass incarceration and state terror. Ransby’s extraordinary biography of Baker was followed by a host of radical black feminist books that moved Baker out of the dimly lit margins of the past to the center of the black liberation movement:

  • Unapologetic: a Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Our Movement (2018) by Charlene Carruthers

  • When They Call You a Terrorist, a Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018), by Patrisse Khan-Cullors

  • From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation (2018), by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

  • Making All Black Lives Matter (2018), by Barbara Ransby

Baker is often quoted, not only in books, but in speeches, posters and banners in the recurrent uprisings against police murders. In Ferguson, one poster read: "Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest." Youth chanted: "Ella Baker was a freedom fighter/ She taught us how to fight/ We gonna fight all day and night/ Until we get it right."

Baker’s influence is especially prominent in the work of Charlene Carruthers, co-founder of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100). She explains Baker’s most famous statement, "Strong people don’t need strong leaders."

People often misread Ella Baker’s declaration ... as a statement against leadership. Instead she was cautioning movements against valorizing single charismatic leaders, especially ones not grounded in or accountable to communities. She understood that transformative change requires the leadership of many people. Her wisdom was shared in a time when individual Black men were seen -- by media and national decision-makers -- as the most essential leaders in the civil rights movement ... There is no single charismatic leader or organizer coming to save us. ... But it is collectively possible to liberate ourselves. We are resilient and refuse to stop believing in the possibility of a world where we live with dignity.

Despite the dark moments of our present era, Ella Baker’s light shines on the long walk to freedom.

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for the East Bay Times and The Montclarion in Oakland, California.

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Published in In Motion Magazine February 21, 2019.