Excerpts from Ella Baker
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 102 in 1999.
Traversing the path of Ella Baker's lifework has taken me on a long, invigorating, exciting, stimulating, inspiring way. It has not been a lonesome trek, since in some sense she has always been there sitting at my side. Sorting it all out, trying to make a pattern and crystallizing a life, has been difficult but rewarding.
Baker was a significant personage, the figure always present. Her lifework was one of rebellion, though sometimes she recognized the need for compromise. She gathered strength, courage, and determination from her slave forebears and applied the lessons she gained from her experience to the vagaries of the movement that she was involved in.
Essentially, she was a radical. She came out of a family that rebelled against the status quo, and she carried on the family tradition. But she was not against; she was for. She was for the participation of people in whatever affected their lives. She was for the best in all of us.
The story of Ella Baker begins in the last century. She came from a long line of strong women: her mother, Georgianna; her grandmother, Betsy; her aunts, Lizzie and Carrie. There were strong men, too: her grandfather, Michael Ross, who forged a community life for them, and Uncle Alpheus, who stood tall amid the people. She carried these legacies with her into the race discord of the twentieth century.
Though she did not want to be a teacher, in fact, she became one - not in the institutional sense but as an organizer and nurturer of future activists. She ever taught Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a thing or two - despite his resistance - by insistently nudging him to reach out to ordinary people. King saw the need to organize them. Baker did her best to try to turn him into an organizer.
Her dignity won her a measure of respect from the ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), who balked at taking advice, let alone direction, from a woman. The respect that she garnered from young people was exemplified by the way they addressed her: as Miss Baker. Only one of the students called her anything remotely like her first name. He was Charles McDew, who claimed that he knew a secret about her name and called her Miss Jo Ella. In fact, she had not been named Jo Ella but Ella Josephine. Another movement activist, Dorothy Burlage, recalled one time when she unthinkingly addressed her as "Ella," and then she was so embarrassed that she apologized for using her first name. Miss Baker immediately soothed her, saying, "That's all right. You know instinctively when the time has come when you can call me Ella."
She believed strongly in the importance of organizing people to formulate their own questions, to define their own problems, and to find their own solutions, and throughout her life she worked to set masses of people in motion.
She was primarily responsible for the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that grew out of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, but her most significant contribution to the civil rights struggle was SNCC - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the cutting edge of the 1960s movement for civil rights. She is also an important figure because she constantly fought to make the voice of the ordinary person heard. She held firmly to the concept of group-centered leadership rather than a leadership-centered group, and grappled with the civil rights leaders of her day to make this paramount.
Baker traveled for six months each year, usually beginning in February in Florida and working her way from Tampa to Jacksonville to Tallahassee. From there she would travel to Mobile and on up through Alabama to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. As often as she could fit it into her schedule she would stop in Littleton to visit her mother and her niece Jackie, who was in Anna Baker's care. Often her husband would join them in North Carolina for a day or two.
Her schedule was rigorous; she sometimes made ten speeches in a day. Her schedule for April 1941, for example, was typically hectic:
April 11: Richmond, Va., meeting with staff of Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company
April 12 : Baptist Minister's conference
April 15 : 9 a.m., Southern Aid Society staff meeting; 9:30 a.m., staff meeting of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance; 7 p.m., campaign report meeting
April 16 : Independent Order of St. Luke meeting
April 17 : 10 a.m., Apex School of Beauty; 11 a.m., School of Modern Beauty Culture
April 17 : Peaks, Va., 8:30 p.m., staff meeting, Peaks Industrial School
April 18 : Peaks Industrial School student assembly
April 18 : Richmond, Va., meeting with staff of Mutual Insurance Company
April 21 : Meeting of Interdenominational Minsiterial Alliance; 2 p.m., luncheon meeting of branch
April 21 : Victoria, Va., 8 p.m., meeting at Lunenburg County Training School re organizing branch
April 22 : Richmond, Va., closing meeting of branch campaign
April 24 : Mass meeting of student chapter, Virginia Union University
April 24 : Danville, Va., 7:30 p.m. conference with branch officers to plan campaign
April 27 : Opening mass meeting of Danville branch campaign
April 28 : Meeting held in county
April 28 : Martinsville, Va., meeting with group interested in organizing branch
April 29 : Youth council meeting at high school
April 29 : Farmville, Va., meeting with branch officers, mass meeting of branch, Moton High School meeting
April 30 : Nottoway County, Va., branch meeting held at Blackstone, Va.
Her schedule every month of her six-month swing through the South was just as full. She found time, however, to fill in the national office on local situations. Roy Wilkins, the assistant secretary, wrote her: "Your letters are a delight to this office." Sometimes she spoke of the arduousness of the travel. In a letter to her friend Lucille Black - a clerical worker who was soon to become membership secretary - she wrote: "Today, I am worn to a frazzel [sic]. Train connections are not so good; and I am stopping at a home with three women of leisure whose major pasttime is idle chatter. That, with being shown off this morning to residents who were too busy to attend the meeting last night, but whose curiosity was piqued by the reports from the meeting, leaves me quite frayed. At the moment, I could wish my worst enemy no greater torture than to have to be nice under such circumstances."
She proposed that in her visits to the "pool-rooms, boot black parlors, bars and grilles [sic]" she seek a subscription to the NAACP magazine The Crisis from the business. But she did not proceed with this as, she said, "it occurred to me that we might not O.K. having memberships sent to Big Joe's Bar and Grille." She added: "This is but another offshoot from my desire to place the N.A.A.C.P. and its program on the lips of all the people … the uncouth MASSES included."
This was a lighthearted comment (one to which in those days the writer would have added "smile," as she often did), but she was deadly serious about involving the "uncouth." She found that she often had to work hard to persuade the sometimes staid Southern membership that defending the town drunk "caught in the paws of the law," an action which some felt would not enhance the organization's reputation, was in essence a defense of the black population in general. Baker reminded the more comfortable members of the community that they were not immune to abuses, that they must stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable members of the community to protect the rights of all.
To this end, she tried to activate the branches to concern themselves with local issues. At the annual conference held in Los Angeles in July 1942, Baker made a strong appeal to the branches, asking: "What are the things taking place in our community which we should like to see changed? What one thing can we be relatively certain we will be able to accomplish in a certain period of time?" She urged: "Take that one thing - getting a new school building; registering people to vote; getting bus transportation - take that one thing and work on it and get it done."
She concluded: "Branches should take the initiative in developing leadership in all social and economic problems and problems of discrimination, job employment and the like, which confront Negroes today. Any branch which says it has nothing around which it can build a program is simply too lazy to concern itself with things on its own doorstep."
In the fluid days of the early 1960s, SNCC's structure was altered often. SNCC meetings were round-the-clock discussions of the organization's shape and function. Baker would sit in silence for much of the time, more often than not wearing a cotton face mask to protect her against the cigarette smoke. Like her mother, she suffered from respiratory troubles.
In these marathon meetings Baker used her old technique of asking questions. "I was not too sure that I had the answer," she recalled later. But often, her questions directed the discussions. Her technique was much like that of Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion." Mandela always remembered the chieftain's axiom that a leader is like a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." This was, indeed, Backer's way.
Baker was a listener. Her practice was to hear everyone out and to accept ideas from even the youngest in the group - "if it was a good idea." She taught the young people in SNCC that everyone had something to give, thus helping them learn to respect each other. SNCC chair Charles McDew recalled that she would pick out a kernel that was a good idea. "Somebody may have spoken for 8 hours, and 7 hours and 53 minutes was utter bullshit, but 7 minutes was good. She taught us to glean out the 7 minutes."