Ella Baker led civil rights movement from the shadows

Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, speaks at the Jeannette Rankin news conference on Jan. 3, 1968. AP Photo
Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, speaks at the Jeannette Rankin news conference on Jan. 3, 1968. AP Photo

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

She had her own ideas of leadership.

Joe Biden began his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination by quoting a key but little known civil rights leader.

“Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: ‘Give people light and they will find a way,’” Biden said.

Though Biden called her a giant, Baker’s legacy represents the historically undervalued contributions of Black women in the fight for social justice and equal treatment.

The public faces were men, so the women were resigned to leading from the shadows. But even if their names were unsung, they shaped the movement.

Baker played key roles in multiple civil rights organizations. She was a field secretary and director of branches for the NAACP. In 1957, she moved to Atlanta to organize for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

She realized students were integral to the movement’s activism, and so in 1960 she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped coordinate galvanizing incidents such as the Freedom Rides on buses throughout the South and Black voter registration drives.

“She encouraged young people to have their own gathering,” said Zach Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Oakland, California-based social justice organization. “The Black freedom movement — the civil rights movement — would not be what it is without SNCC.”

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Unlike some contemporaries, Baker did not care about being seen in the driver’s seat on the bumpy journey to equality. Her concern was making sure the driver, passengers and the countrywide caravan kept moving forward.

Baker, who was vocal about sexism in the civil rights movement, sought to change the way people viewed leadership, according to Barbara Ransby, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and author of the Baker biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.”

No matter how much movements try to avoid it, it seems the people in them gravitate toward one charismatic, symbolic figurehead, Ransby said.

Baker didn’t fit the mold.

“She was quiet and steady,” Ransby said. “She had a long game and, in terms of her involvement in the movement, she did not try to take individual credit or have the spotlight shine on her.”

“Ella Baker had a way of focusing on the building of movements,” Norris said. “She believed in making sure that leaders were movement centered rather than having leader-centered movements.”

Baker was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina. Her social justice roots were planted by her grandmother’s stories about living as a slave, including the whipping she received for refusing to marry a man chosen by her owner.

This year, the Ella Baker Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The organization’s original mission was holding police accountable, but it has evolved to challenging prisons sentences and addressing systemic racism.

“So often people talk about radical as this kind of left-right thing,” Norris said. “But I think that she really saw a lack of power in communities as being part of the root problem.”

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