Ella Josephine Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned over five decades.
When she was seven, her family moved to her mother’s hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Baker’s grandmother had been enslaved and was whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master.
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was hired in December 1940 as a secretary. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local.
In January 1957, Baker went to Atlanta, Georgia to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. This organization was initially planned to be a loosely structured coalition linking church based leaders in civil rights struggles across the South. The group wanted to emphasize nonviolence as a means of bringing about social progress and racial justice for southern blacks. The organization would rely on the southern black church for the base of its support. The strength of the organization rested on the political activities of its local church affiliates. It envisioned itself as the political arm of the black church. The SCLC first stepped on the political scene as an organization at the Prayer and Pilgrimage for Freedom. Baker was instrumental in pulling off this large scale event which became extremely successful. Her work as one of the organizers for this event demonstrated her ability to straddle organizational lines, deliberately ignoring and minimizing rivalries and battles.
From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), which aimed to help black and white people work together for social justice; an interracial desegregation and human rights group based in the South. SCEF carried out the work of grassroots organizing. The organization raised money for black activists, lobbied for implementation of President Truman’s civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism.
The 1981 documentary Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker, directed by Joanne Grant, showed Baker’s important role in the civil rights movement.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a non-profit strategy and action center based in Oakland, CA, was founded in 1996.
In 2009 Ella Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.
- “Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.”
- “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” (1964)
- “The development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.”
- “Strong people do not need strong leaders.”