You should know all about Civil Rights trailblazer Ella Baker
While she’s not a household name like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker was their peer in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the American South. And she earned another name, “Fundi,” from a Swahili word for a craftsman or learned person who takes care to pass along knowledge. This nickname was so very appropriate for Baker, who was outspoken, hard-working and above all, a guardian of justice and mentor to each new generation.
By the time the documentary “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker” came out in 1981, she had already been a national branch manager for the NAACP, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and essential organizer and mentor to the famed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The granddaughter of a slave, Baker didn’t shy away from hard duties or hard truths, working as an activist both in her native South and the Northern U.S. Here is the path she followed in 83 years as a Fundi.
Birth of an activist: Ella’s early days
Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, Ella Baker grew up in rural North Carolina. Her childhood inspiration for serving vulnerable populations was her own grandmother, who’d been a slave. One of her most inspiring legacies was her grandmother’s pride in her refusal to marry the man her owner chose, though it resulted in a brutal whipping at the plantation owner’s hands. Such horrors would always fuel Baker’s drive to promote human rights.
Baker displayed her inclinations as a scholar and an activist early on. She graduated valedictorian from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, but earning that honor did not slow her down one whit from protesting many unfair school policies.
After college, Baker headed for New York City, there to begin a career in social justice that would take the granddaughter of a slave all over the country and span five decades. She began working with women’s groups in the city and soon sought out the Young Negroes Cooperative League. While that name doesn’t sound particularly forward-thinking to 21st-century ears, in 1930 it was both courageous and innovative. The purpose was to encourage economic power for blacks by collective planning, and the “collective” aspect would crop up in Baker’s leadership time and again the rest of her life. More than once, she shared these words to live by: “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.
New to the NAACP
Ella Baker was in her late 30s when she took up with the NAACP in 1940. Both her education and her spirit came into play here, beginning with her work as an NAACP field secretary and following her as she directed different branches between 1943 and 1946. While she didn’t do any grandstanding in her NAACP years, Baker’s contribution was immeasurable. She had both the ambition and the personality to be able to convince ordinary black citizens of the 1940s to come together and peaceably insist they deserved civil rights.
Part steel will, part kindly listener, Baker hosted workshops and extended her influence by convincing rank and file folks to take office in local activist groups. Suffice to say just one person who felt the influence of Baker was a woman and fellow NAACP member who attended one of her workshops, none other than Rosa Parks of Montgomery Alabama.
Baker also co-founded the organization In Friendship. Its aim was to fight the segregationist Jim Crow Laws in the Deep South, including whites-only theaters, water fountains, and schools. In her early 40s, Baker moved to Atlanta. She is credited as one of the co-founders the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. While MLK was the undisputed public face of the SCLC, with a mission to establish formal groups to extend bus boycotts, this is the major spot where Baker has been an unsung hero. Historians are quick to point out that Baker took lead on pinpointing issues to address and determining the SCLC’s agenda. Baker herself probably realized she was being overlooked. What’s known is that she moved on pretty quickly after some struggles with the male-dominated leadership.
Without Ella Baker, there is no SNCC
Family pressures dictated that Baker would resign from the national NAACP in 1946 to return to Harlem and raise a niece. She kept a hand in, though, and in 1952 was elected the first female president of the New York Chapter. True to her resilient, courageous family background, Baker spent those NYC years working to end school segregation. When she felt she needed to confront the mayor publicly, nothing could stop her.
Baker still had many milestones ahead of her, including playing the lead in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Though she was in her late 50s in 1960, she took the leadership role in this group that helped make the youth-led 1961 Freedom Rides a reality, along with directing massive black voter registration drives in the South.
Carrying the torch
Baker continued her journey of activism and non-violent protest right up into the 1980s. The organization that bears her name fans out Baker’s influence to the West Coast. The Ella Baker Center in Oakland, California was founded in 1996 and continues to work for social justice in the spirit of Ella, though she’s been dead for almost 33 years.
Their stated mission is to “build on her legacy by building the power of black, brown, and poor people to create solutions for one of the biggest drivers of injustice today: mass incarceration.”