“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed…It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
Ella Baker was a civil rights leader and activist in the United States. She was born in Virginia in 1903 but grew up in North Carolina. There, she spent time with her grandmother and listened to her stories about growing up as a slave.
Ella went on to study at Shaw University in North Carolina, graduating as valedictorian in 1927. After completing her studies, Ella moved to New York City and joined social activist organizations, building upon prior activist work she had undertaken while at Shaw University. She joined groups such as the Young Negroes Cooperative League and various women’s organizations. For Ella, a key facet of the fight for equal rights for people of all races and gender was economic justice.
In the 1940s, Ella became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She started out as a secretary and made her way to the position of director of branches, making her the highest-ranked woman in the organization at the time. In 1955, Ella co-founded the organization “In Friendship” to raise funds to fight Jim Crow Laws, ultimately moving to Atlanta in 1957 to aid in organizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While there, Ella also ran a voter registration campaign, which was named “Crusade for Citizenship.” At times, she clashed with King and other male leaders of the SCLC, feeling that they sometimes held too much power and were not open to the ideas of a woman. Ella verbalized this philosophy with her belief that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” In other words, grassroots activism and movements were more effective, in her opinion.
Following the peaceful sit-in led by students in 1960 at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, Ella left the SCLC to work with new student activists, as she felt that these young people were a huge asset to the movement. Consequently, she organized a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University, and there the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created. The SNCC coordinated with other groups and movements around the country, and eventually became one of the most prominent advocates for human rights in the U.S. Ella was able to use the connections she had made from her time working at the NAACP to further the aims of the SNCC and mobilize the group.
Ella’s tireless push to advocate for the rights of African Americans, women and for human rights in general had a huge impact on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and 60s. Her work is even more impressive given the fact that, as a Black woman in the U.S. at that time, the odds were certainly stacked against her.
Ella Baker continued her fight for human rights until her death in December 1986, and her legacy lives on today. She did not mind working “behind the scenes” and, in fact, even advocated for this, stating that every person has the capacity to make a difference and fight for the change they wish to bring about.
Written by Corinne Schoch, WAVE Intern
Americans Who Tell the Truth. “Ella Baker.” https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/ella-baker.
Biography. “Ella Baker.” February 28, 2018. https://www.biography.com/activist/ella-baker.
Crowther, Linnea. “Ella Baker: 10 Facts.” http://www.legacy.com/news/explore-history/article/ella-baker-10-facts.
DeLong, William. “Ella Baker: The Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement.” All That’s Interesting. October 2, 2018. https://allthatsinteresting.com/ella-baker.
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. https://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker.