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Ella Baker

Ella Baker Civil Rights Icon

The Civil Rights Movement is full of unsung heroes. The thousands of men and women who marched in the streets, sat in at lunch counters, attended rallies, and resisted segregation and Jim Crow in countless other ways are too many to name. But there is one Shaw alumna who deserves special recognition. Her name is Ella Baker and she founded one of the most influential organizations of the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (better known as SNCC), at Shaw University in 1960.

Ella Josephine Baker was born in Norfolk, VA in 1903, but moved to Littleton, NC as a child to be closer to family. She attended Shaw University and graduated valedictorian in 1927.  While at Shaw, she honed her skills as a member of the debate team and became the youngest contributor to the campus newspaper. Perhaps more importantly, she learned to challenge authority and question the status quo.

According to Baker biographer Barbara Ransby, Shaw University was "the most influential institution in Ella Baker’s early life," next to the church.

Upon graduation, Baker moved to New York City to begin her career as a writer, editor, and activist with the NAACP. During her time with the NAACP, she was known as great recruiter and organizer who connected with people of all backgrounds on a personal level. Her success organizing all across the country during those early years set her up to play a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She was appointed president of the New York chapter of the NAACP in 1952, a position that she held for only a year before resigning to run for office.

As the ‘60s arrived, Baker and others noticed the energy that black college students were bringing to the movement with the Greensboro sit-ins. She was inspired to empower young people to take action by providing them with resources and training.

Over Easter weekend in 1960, Ella Baker organized a meeting at her alma mater that would give birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. With Baker's help, SNCC quickly grew and operated throughout the South. The group helped organize sit-ins, the freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was chairman of SNCC and one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, credited Baker with inspiring students to act.

“Ella Baker was one of the smartest, one of the most gifted women of the American Civil Rights Movement,” said Representative Lewis. “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became her child, and she was in a sense a mother… even with her age, she was so progressive, so radical, so militant, and demanded action. If it weren’t for Ella Baker, many of the young people that got involved with the movement wouldn’t have been involved.”

After the creation of SNCC, Baker continued to organize and agitate for change working through various groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Southern Conference Education Fund. She was known throughout her career as an egalitarian who believed in the power of individuals to lift themselves up instead of relying on a strong leader. This bold stance often caused her to butt heads with some leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, as it had at Shaw while she was a student.

"Strong people do not need strong leaders," Baker once said.

Ella Baker passed away in 1986 at the age of 83. Her legacy lives on through the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, CA.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn and think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which we change that system. – Ella Baker, 1969

Source: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby