Have you ever heard of Ella Baker? She was an African-American civil rights activist who advocated for equal rights for all people. For over 50 years, Baker championed radical democracy and even tutored Rosa Parks and Stokely Carmichael. Find out why she has been called “one of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century.”

Keeping the peace

Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, Ella Josephine Baker was the middle of three children. Her dad worked for a steamship line and was constantly away on business. Her mother and grandmothers spent most of their time raising the children, and her mother took on renters to raise additional money for the household. Her grandmother would often recount stories about the horrors of slavery, inspiring young Ella’s fight for equality.

When Ella’s grandmother was a slave, she recounted that she had decided not to marry the man that the plantation owner had picked out for her. As a result, the poor woman was brutally beaten for standing up for her beliefs. This pivotal story seemed to be a major catalyst for Baker’s love of social justice. She then encountered her first riot when she was just seven years old, and her mother moved the family to Littleton, North Carolina to keep them out of trouble.

Eventually, Ella grew up and began her studies at Shaw University in North Carolina. When she was a student, she had no qualms with speaking up about the school policies that she disagreed with. By 1927, she graduated at the top of her class and relocated to New York City to join the bustling activist community. Three years later, she became a part of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which hoped to strengthen black financial ties through strategic planning. She was also dedicated to the idea of economic freedom for Americans. In fact, she even stated that, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”

We shall overcome

In 1940, the budding activist got involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She started out working as the NAACP’s traveling secretary and was quickly promoted to become the director of branches from 1943 to 1946. At this time, she resigned from her position to adopt her niece Jackie but she still volunteered as an advocate for human rights. By 1953, she rescinded her presidency with the NAACP in hopes of running for the New York City Council, but sadly lost.

However, she never gave of hope and rebounded in 1957 when she helped Martin Luther King Jr. create his new movement called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group aimed to use non-violent means to provoke socioeconomic change, using African-American churches as their support system. However, after working side by side with Dr. King for three years, she concluded that the program just wasn’t hitting its mark. In fact, historian Thomas F. Jackson claimed that Baker critiqued SCLC’s “programmatic sluggishness and King’s distance from the people. King was a better orator than democratic crusader [she] concluded.”

In 1960, she hosted the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University with the SCLC. This legendary activist sit-in was a safe space for students and leaders alike to discuss their plan for a brighter future. They created the social justice group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)  at the academic rendezvous.

Fight for your right

The day was February 1, 1960, and southern black college students had decided to protest the Woolworth’s restaurant in North Carolina after being denied service. The brave students from North Carolina’s A&T University endured countless insults in order to take a stand against the harsh realities of racism. After witnessing the historical Greensboro sit-in, Baker was inspired to leave the SCLC to mentor other young activists.

During Baker’s time with the SNCC, she was able to impart her wisdom to future revolutionaries that included Stokely Carmichael and Rosa Parks. She maintained her passion for human rights, claiming that “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 son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

She became an advocate for participatory democracy in the 1960s and called for her fellow brothers and sisters to stand against the fear and isolation that racism had created. About her role in the social movement, she proclaimed, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

In the 1970s, Baker relocated to New York City to continue her fight for social justice. She journeyed cross-country to advocate for the “Free Angela” crusade, which sought to release celebrated author and activist Angela Davis. She also backed the Puerto Rican battle for independence and was an avid speaker against the advent of apartheid in South Africa. She even joined up with a legion of women’s groups that included the Third World Women’s Alliance and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Baker retained her status as an activist until she passed away at age 83 in 1986. Although she is gone, she is certainly not forgotten. Her advocacy for African-American rights still makes an impact today.