By: Leon Kwasi Kuntuo-Asare
Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. She was raised with her parents Georgiana and Blake Baker. At the age of 7, her family moved to her grandmother’s hometown of Littleton, North Carolina, a Small rural town. There she would hear great historic tales of courageous slave revolts, including the story of her maternal grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth “Bet” Ross, who was whipped by her master for refusing to marry a man, her master had chosen for her.
Baker would attend Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she would graduate as class valedictorian in 1927, during her college days, she also built a reputation for standing up against school policies that she believed to be unjust. After college she moved to New York City.
In 1931, Baker would join the young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL) which was a group dedicated to black economic empowerment, she would soon raise to the rank of national director of the organization.
During the 1930’s Baker worked with the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration , there taught classes in labor history, African history and consumer education. She would also immerse herself into the political atmosphere of the time, by protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and supporting the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, a group of black youths, she believed were falsely accused of raping two white women. At around this time, Baker began to advocate for nationwide, local activism as a means of achieving political change.
Baker believed grassroots activism did not need charismatic leaders with a messiah complex, instead she believed and taught that the struggle should be fought by we the people in the streets, on a grassroots level.
In late 1940, Baker began working for the National Association for the Advancement of colored people (NAACP), where she first worked as a secretary, then soon began recruiting new members locally, raising money and organizing local events. She rose fast in the organization, and in 1945 was named Director of Branches.
In 1946 Baker returned to New York, to take care of her niece, which forced her to leave her leadership role in the NAACP. She would still continue to volunteer for the organization on a local level. She would soon join the New York chapter of the NAACP, where she worked hard to end segregation in public schools and police brutality against black people. In 1952 she would become president of the New York chapter.
Baker would resign from the organization in 1953 to run for New York City, city council as a member of the Liberal Party, she was unsuccessful in her bid for city office.
In 1957 Baker traved to Atlanta, Georgia to take part in a conference that was supposed to build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in February of that same year, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed.
The organization’s aim was to unite black churches and their leaders, who fought against systematic white supremacy in the south, as they used nonviolent protests to fight against systematic white supremacy oppression. Baker was the organization’s first staff member, she soon began to organize voter registration, assist local activists with their local grievances, helping local civil rights activists in states like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
In 1960, Baker insisted the SCLC invite southern student protestors, who were having desegregation
sit-ins to Shaw University, for a youth civil rights conference, to discuss their struggles and go over possible solutions with the young activsts in attendance. At this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created. SNCC would become the most active civil rights organization in the Delta region of the United States. After the conference, Baker would resign from the SCLC and would become an advisor to the SNCC activsts.
In 1964 Baker would help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party ( MFDP) which was to be an alternative to the racist and all-white Mississippi party.
From 1962-1967 Baker worked as staff for the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) , which was an interracial organization, that fought for social justice issues, human rights and fought against segregation.
In 1972 Baker Traveled the nation to give her support in the “Free Angela” campaign, the objective was to get justice for civil rights activist Angela Davis, whose supporters believed was targeted unlawfully by law enforcement for her political and activism activities.
Towards the end of her life, she still continued to support many causes including the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, she supported many women’s groups and spoke out against the brutally racist South African apartheid regime.
In 1986, on her 83rd birthday she died.
Cornel West thoughts on the great civil rights activist Ella Baker.
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