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Arthur Lea Willams - We Who Believe in Freedom

"We Who Believe in Freedom" - New Book Chronicles Ella Baker’s Early Life

Lea E. Williams is the author of We Who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker. This short biography, intended for middle school and high school readers, documents Ella Baker's early life, her social justice activism, and the lasting impact she had on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Dr. Williams took the title of her book from “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. The a capella group wrote the song as a tribute to Ella Baker.  It was inspired by a speech Baker gave in 1964 in which she said:

“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.”

Below, Dr. Williams discusses Baker’s life and work, and talks about why she was inspired to tell Baker’s story to a new generation.

What do you think young people can learn from Ella Baker?

“When I look at Ella Baker’s life, the number one lesson for young people would be to get a quality education and to take every opportunity to be of service to others on the job and in your community.  Education was highly prized by Ella’s parents at a time when public school education in the South was almost nonexistent, certainly for African-American youngsters, and was equally poor even for whites.

“Blake and Anna Baker sent Ella and her two siblings to a private Baptist church school. They sacrificed to pay the tuition when Ella left home as a ninth grader to attend Shaw Academy, which was a boarding high school. She stayed on through college and graduated at the top of her class.  Shaw University was a strong influence in Baker’s life.  These institutions challenged her intellectually, buttressed her self-confidence, and grounded her in a commitment to selfless service to others.  Her Shaw years prepared her well to seize the opportunities that later came her way.”

What were Baker’s greatest strengths as a leader?

“Perhaps, her greatest strength was the ability to organize the indigenous leaders in local communities.  She sought out people who were natural leaders and highly regarded by the people in the community.  

“She didn’t just go to the people who were highly educated, like teachers and organizational leaders. Instead of meeting at churches and other safe places, she went to barber shops, beauty parlors, and poolrooms to recruit people to come to meetings. In fact, some of her NAACP colleagues were outraged because she went to such places. Nevertheless, Baker continued to seek out people she knew were respected in their communities and who would, consequently, be listened to by others.” 

What do you think made Ella Baker such an excellent organizer?

“Ella Baker became widely known for her excellent organizing skills. At the NAACP, she succeeded in increasing branch memberships many fold, thus raising the revenue to fund programs.

“In meetings, Baker asked, ‘What are the rights that you want to fight for? What are the inequities that you would like to have addressed?’ She listened closely and practiced a participatory, democratic model of leadership. Everyone’s was allowed to speak and everyone’s voice was heard.  This was a vastly different model of community organizing from that of the other civil rights organizations.

“With her careful guidance, communities decided the issues of most concern to them in order to focus their activism in productive ways.  Baker helped map out the strategies that would be most effective in accomplishing the group’s common purpose.”    

Where do you think Baker got that sense of egalitarianism?

“Initially, she learned through experience, coming to understand that people in a community would ultimately be responsible for the success of any program or project planned. They would remain in the community long after the “experts” had moved on, so upfront engagement and local leadership were essential for the long-term viability of a project. 

“In addition to experience being a teacher, Ella learned from her mother how to treat people. As a child she was often by her mother’s side as together they assisted neighbors and less fortunate strangers who needed a helping hand. Ella had ample opportunities to observe the Christian love and charity practiced by her mother and the churchwomen in her mother’s circle. These women became role models and were a powerful influence from an early age.” 

Why did Ella’s mother choose to send her to Shaw?

“Anna Baker wanted her daughter to be challenged academically, but in a Christian environment that nurtured the values, especially humility, which had been planted at home.  She very deliberately chose Shaw as the right environment for her bright, impressionable young daughter.”

Why do you think education was so important to Baker?

“Ella’s parents recognized that education provided a ladder for upward mobility for their children. The ability to speak well and to write well was taught at home long before Ella went to school. A quality education would equip Ella with the tools to be of service to others. It was never meant to set her above others.”  

What do you want readers to come away with after reading your book?

“The book makes clear the pivotal role that Baker played in the civil rights movement, especially in helping the sit-in students to network and organize effectively. She maintained a commitment to social justice causes throughout her life.  Interviewed in later years, she said that for her standing for something was always more important than the amount of money you made. Indeed, Ella Baker stood for something throughout her life and her legacy attests to that. We Who Believe in Freedom raises to prominence a social justice activist and civil rights champion. It praises an icon of the civil rights movement whose voice deserves to be heard in our time.”

You can learn more about We Who Believe and Freedom and purchase a copy here. Learn more about Williams and her work at