Ella Baker was a tireless fighter for social equality for African-Americans in the United States. Although not at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King Jr., Baker's work--supporting local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), working behind the scenes to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and mentoring college students through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)--helped move the Civil Rights Movement forward. One of her most famous quotes encapsulates the meaning of her work as a professional grassroots organizer, "This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real."
Early Life and Education
Born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Va., Ella Jo Baker grew up listening to stories of slave rebellions from her grandmother. A former slave, her grandmother told Baker that she'd been punished for not marrying a man that her owner had chosen. These stories laid the foundation for social justice and activism that would remain throughout Baker's life.
Baker began her career in social activism while a student at Shaw University. Unhappy with policies instituted by the school administration, Baker challenged the purpose of these rules. In 1927, Baker graduated as valedictorian.
Early Career in New York City
Following Baker's graduation from Shaw University, she moved to New York City to begin her career as a writer and sociopolitical activist. Baker began by joining the editorial staff of the American West Indian News and later the Negro National News. Soon after, Baker joined the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL), an organization established by writer George Schuyler. Baker would serve as the organization's national director, helping African-Americans build economic and political solidarity.
Throughout the 1930s, Baker worked for the Worker's Education Project, an agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In this capacity, Baker taught classes concerning labor history, African history and consumer education. She also dedicated her time to actively protesting against social injustices such as Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama.
Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement
In 1940, Baker became involved with local chapters of the NAACP, first working as a field secretary and later, as director of branches. In 1955, Baker was influenced greatly by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and established In Friendship, an organization that raised funds to fight Jim Crow Laws. Two years later, Baker moved to Atlanta to help Martin Luther King Jr. establish the SCLC. In addition to working with King to build the membership and mission of the SCLC, Baker continued her focus on grassroots organizing by running Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.
By 1960, Baker was assisting young African-American college students in their growth as activists. Inspired by students from North Carolina A & T who refused to get up from a Woolworth lunch counter, Baker returned to Shaw University and helped students participate in the sit-ins in April 1960. Out of Baker's mentorship, the SNCC was established. Partnering with members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides. By 1964, with the help of Baker, SNCC and CORE organized Freedom Summer to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi and also, to expose the racism existing in the state.
In addition to mentoring members of SNCC and CORE, Baker assisted in the establishment of the Missisippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). MFDP was a mixed raced organization that gave people not represented in the Mississippi Democratic Party an opportunity to have their voices heard. Although the MFDP was never given the opportunity to sit at the Democratic Convention, the work of this organization helped to revise a rule allowing women and people of color to sit as delegates at the Democratic Convention.
Retirement and Death
Up until her death in 1986, Baker remained an activist--fighting for social and political justice not only in the United States, but the world.