The story of a grassroots organizer and outspoken leader in the Black civil rights movement.
Life Story: Ella Baker
Black Delegates Challenge Mississippi Democrats
George Ballis (photographer), Black Delegates Challenge Mississippi Democrats, 1964. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ella Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. She spent most of her childhood in rural North Carolina, listening to her grandparents tell stories about being enslaved.
At a young age, Ella developed a strong appreciation for hard work and community. She saw her family and friends supporting one another, in good times and bad. Ella came to realize that people were strongest when they had a caring and determined network of support to rely on.
Ella attended high school and then college at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1927, she graduated as the class valedictorian. She hoped to attend graduate school, but her family could not afford it. Instead, she moved to New York City in search of work.
Harlem in 1927 was a hub of Black intellectual and creative thinking. Ella was immediately swept up in the flow of ideas around her. When the Great Depression hit, the ideals Ella carried with her to New York were suddenly in question. She had been taught that hard work and perseverance would lead to success. But as the country struggled through an economic depression, it seemed as though no amount of hard work could help her—or her neighbors— find stability and success.
Ella channeled her frustration into work with the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, which aimed to help Black people achieve economic independence. She also participated in investigations of unfair labor practices. In 1935, she pretended to be a domestic worker while researching an article about the inequity Black women workers dealt with.
In 1941, Ella started a new job as a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For the next three years, she traveled throughout the Deep South, recruiting members, raising money, and spreading awareness about the importance of civil rights. The work was dangerous for a young, Black woman to undertake. But, despite the challenges, Ella excelled and built a massive network for the NAACP.
Ella was eventually promoted to National Director of Branches at the NAACP. From this leadership position, she spoke up about her concerns with the organization. She thought it was too bureaucratic and focused too much on middle-class supporters and membership numbers. To her, the NAACP was out of touch with the Black communities it was trying to serve. Also, there were over 400,000 members in the mid-1940s, but the NAACP did very little organizing. Most of the action took place in court rooms, where members could not participate.
In 1946, Ella stepped down from her role in the national office. Eventually, she returned to the NAACP as president of the New York branch. This allowed her to focus on local organizing. She managed initiatives on school desegregation and police brutality. She recruited neighbors and community members to get involved in the work. She saw no reason why local Harlem residents should wait for “professional” activists to work on their behalf.
Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Ella co-founded the organization In Friendship. The purpose was to raise funds in support of Southern civil rights activism. Working on In Friendship reminded Ella of her days as an NAACP field organizer. She longed to go back to the South and help with the work. Not long after, she was invited to Atlanta to support the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Through this work, Ella met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although she was skeptical of this new minister-led organization, she agreed to serve as its grassroots organizer. She traveled through the South raising awareness using her old NAACP contacts.
However, Ella once again became frustrated with her employers. Although SCLC leadership praised her work, she sensed that her appointment was temporary. She could tell that the all-minister leadership team was not interested in having a woman leader at the table. She could also tell that they were wary of her community organizing approach.
I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.
Ella’s view of civil rights organizing was considered radical by many of her colleagues. She believed that every day people needed to be their own leaders. To her, big speeches and big marches were not very effective. She believed a small but highly dedicated group was more powerful than a crowd of one-time marchers. She also thought people needed to get their hands dirty in the work of activism in order to achieve real change. Listening to speeches and praying together was simply not enough.
Ella also believed that women were the unappreciated and unrecognized backbone of the movement. While she respected King’s leadership and vision, she often reminded him that it was women doing the hardest work. Black women had long been the organizers of churches and other community centers in the South. Their networks and knowledge were the bridges between big ideas and action on the ground.
These ideas put Ella at odds with many members of SCLC. Ella could not understand why civil rights leaders had such limited definitions of democracy and engagement. Everyone should be encouraged to have a seat at the table, she thought.
Unsatisfied at SCLC, Ella embarked on her next major project in 1960. Inspired by the student-led sit-ins at lunch counters and other public spaces around the South, Ella called a meeting of student activists at her alma mater in Raleigh. Over 200 students attended. The NAACP and SCLC hoped Ella would recruit these young people to join them. But Ella had a different vision. She encouraged the students to organize on their own. As a result, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. Ella saw great potential in SNCC. With its youthful energy, SNCC members worked on the ground, helping people in rural communities vote, educate themselves, and combat racism.
Ella served as an advisor, not a leader, in the group. SNCC was meant to be the students’ organization, not hers. When SNCC members asked her to weigh in, Ella asked questions rather than just give answers. During the creation of Freedom Summer in 1964, Ella offered her full support, but only spoke up when disagreements pulled the conversation off course.
That same year, Ella helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). When the MFDP decided to attend the National Democratic Convention, it was Ella who found the cheapest hotel rooms in Atlantic City, which were the only rooms the small organization could afford. Ella was also there when Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists spoke out about racial inequality in the political system.
By 1965, tensions in the civil rights movement were growing. SNCC members were exasperated that their nonviolent tactics were met with violence from white people and got little attention from policy makers. They were drawn to new ideas of Black self-defense and Black Power.
Ella had spent her entire career working to bring people together in the fight for freedom: poor and middle class; Christian and secular; northern and southern; men and women; and Black and white. She was uncomfortable with the Black Power movement’s rejection of white allies. However, she respected that SNCC was moving in a new direction. But she felt it was time for her involvement in the organization to end.
The eventual dissolution of SNCC hit Ella hard, but she found ways to stay politically active. She volunteered her time, knowledge, and voice to a range of social justice issues. In the 1970s, she spoke out in favor of Angela Davis’s release from prison. She also traveled internationally and supported civil rights in Puerto Rico.
Ella Baker died in her sleep on her 83rd birthday on December 13, 1986.
Black Power: A civil rights movement that promoted pride and solidarity among Black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.
Black self-defense: The idea that Black civil rights activists should defend themselves against violence by fighting back and carrying weapons for protection.
Freedom Summer: A voter registration drive to increase registered Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP): A short-lived political party formed in 1964 to offer Black Mississippi residents an alternative to the all-white political parties controlling the state.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): A civil rights organization that was founded in 1909 to oppose racial discrimination and still exists today.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): A Southern-based civil rights organization founded to fight for equal rights for Black Americans.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): A national organization founded to recruit and organize young people interested in the civil rights movement.
valedictorian: The top student in a graduating class.
How did Ella’s childhood and education prepare her for a life of grassroots organizing?
Why did Ella eventually stop working for the NAACP national office? What concerns did she have?Why did Ella eventually stop working for SCLC? What concerns did she have?
Describe Ella’s personal philosophy around civil rights activism and the fight for freedom. Many people described her as radical. Do you agree?
Ella worked alongside some of the most famous names in the history of the civil rights movement. Why do you think her story is not as well known?
What does Ella’s life story tell you about the civil rights movement and the different people who contributed to it?
Focus on the work of SNCC by studying this life story alongside the Freedom Summer letter and Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony. How does each resource add to students’ understanding of this organization? What more can you learn about Ella from the two related primary sources?