Ella Josephine Baker
Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on December 13, 1903, the second of three children of Georgianna Ross Baker and Blake Baker. Baker's mother insisted that her children do well in school, because she felt that they needed an education in order to live a full life. Baker was sent to a private boarding school from ninth grade to twelfth grade, after her mother decided that she and her siblings were not receiving high-quality instruction in the public school they had been attending. In 1918, Baker began studying at Shaw University, an all-black school in Raleigh, North Carolina, that offered high school and college-level instruction.
Baker graduated from Shaw University in 1927, ranked first in her class. However, she did not have enough money for further schooling to become either a medical missionary or a social worker, occupations to which she had aspired. Her college degree in hand, she went to New York City.
While living in New York, Baker wrote articles for Harlem newspapers, including the West Indian Review. Living and working in Harlem during the mid-to late 1920s, she became a part of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of high artistic achievement and greater awareness of the possibilities for equality, justice, and true freedom. Baker participated in political discussions with many people, all over New York City. She later recalled, "Wherever there was a discussion, I'd go. It didn't matter if it was all men, and maybe I was the only woman … it didn't matter."
In the early days of the Great Depression, Baker was working for a Harlem newspaper along with George Samuel Schuyler, who was well known in the black community for his writing and who frequently railed against racial prejudice. In one article, Schuyler proposed that African Americans set up cooperatives to purchase goods in larger quantities, at lower prices than they could get otherwise. The response to this article was so positive that Schuyler decided to set up a cooperative on his own with Baker's help. Baker learned a great deal in this experience, and became an acknowledged expert on consumer affairs, a new idea that she helped introduce to the black community nationwide. In 1935, she was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a group of programs set up by President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL, to teach people living in Harlem how to purchase the most for the little money they had.
Baker worked for the WPA until 1938, when she left to become an assistant field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first civil rights organization established in the United States.
At that time the NAACP had fewer members in the South than in any other part of the United States, and most of its members were professionals—doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Baker believed that the organization had to reach the larger population of working people in
order to accomplish its tasks. She targeted factory workers, household workers, and construction workers and tried to get them to support the NAACP. By 1941, thanks to Baker and the other NAACP field staffers, the NAACP's southern membership rolls had increased significantly.
In 1942 Baker was promoted to director of branches for the organization. In that position, she helped branch offices organize fund-raising and membership drives and encouraged them to become involved in local affairs to improve the lot of black people in their communities. Through her contact with the branch offices, the organization became aware of court cases they could bring on behalf of blacks who were denied their civil rights, such as access to public institutions of higher education.
In 1954 Baker was named as president of the New York City branch of the NAACP. In May of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed.873. The Court ruled in Brown that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. As a result, school districts in cities across the nation had to make sure they were not violating the law. Based on her experience raising her niece, Jackie, Baker believed that New York City schools were segregated, and she and other community leaders pressured city hall to examine the school system more closely for evidence of illegal SEGREGATION. The next year, the mayor of New York City asked Baker to join his newly created Commission on School Integration.
To present the commission's findings to parents of schoolchildren, Baker set up meetings around New York City. When she found that many parents were deeply concerned over the quality of their neighborhood schools, Baker encouraged them to petition the school board to allow their children to attend schools of their own choosing. In response to the petitions, New York developed one of the first open-enrollment plans for public schools. Open enrollment allowed public school students to attend schools outside their own neighborhoods, without requiring them to change their residency or pay extra tuition or transportation costs.
A new chapter in the civil rights movement began when ROSA PARKS refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus on December 1, 1955. In Montgomery, black passengers could sit only in the back of the bus, behind the first ten rows of seats. Whites could sit in the black section of the bus, but when they did, a black person could not sit next to or in front of a white person. And black people could be forced to give up their seats if a white person had no place to sit.
Parks was an officer of the NAACP's Montgomery branch and had worked with Baker on the NAACP's Leadership Conference, a program designed to help local members develop their leadership skills. In support of Parks, leaders of Montgomery's black community, including Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott lasted from December 1, 1955, until December 20, 1956, when blacks in Montgomery heard that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on December 17 that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional (Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114 [Nov. 13, 1956], reh'g denied, 352 U.S. 950, 77 S. Ct. 323, 1 L. Ed. 2d 245).
After the success of the MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT, Baker and others eventually convinced King to call a meeting of southern black leaders to plan to extend the battle. The meeting King called was to take place in Atlanta on January 11, 1957. The evening before, several locations in Montgomery were bombed, including homes of white and black supporters of the civil rights movement. King and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, whose home was one of those bombed, left the meeting to investigate the incidents. Baker and an associate stayed in Atlanta to manage the conference with Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. This meeting was the beginning of the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE (SCLC), an umbrella organization for groups fighting for civil rights.
One of the SCLC's first nationwide efforts was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration program. By September 1959, when the organization had not motivated masses of African Americans to register, Baker proposed three changes that she believed would result in a stronger organization. The first suggestion was to create an overarching plan to coordinate the activities of SCLC member groups. The second was to actively develop the leadership skills of people in the member organizations who had demonstrated abilities in that area. The third was to organize black southerners to fight every form of discrimination by using mass action and nonviolent resistance.
One method of nonviolent resistance, the sit-in, was used as early as 1942 by a civil rights organization called the CONGRESS OF RACIAL EQUALITY (CORE) to protest RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. Not until 1960, however, were sit-ins widely used as a form of protest. In February 1960, four black students sat at the lunch counter in a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused service, because it was a "whites-only" lunch counter, but remained seated until the store closed for the day. News of the incident spread quickly, and area high school and college students joined them in the following days. By the end of March, students had staged sit-ins in many other southern cities. Baker realized that although the sitins were generating publicity for the civil rights movement, their influence would be greater if they were better coordinated, so in April 1960 Baker organized a conference for student civil rights activists at Shaw University. Over three hundred students attended the meeting, which was the genesis of the STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC). Among those attending were Marion Barry, future mayor and future city council member of Washington, D.C., and JULIAN BOND, future Georgia legislator.
Baker resigned from the SCLC and became SNCC's adviser and organized its main office. SNCC developed a unique, separate identity within the civil rights movement because of Baker's style of leadership. Baker believed that everyone in an organization should lead it, so she made sure that everyone in attendance at meetings stated an opinion, and that no other single civil rights leader or organization, including the NAACP and King, directed the activities of the committee. When SNCC nearly split apart over whether to pursue direct action (such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins) or voter registration, Baker suggested that the organization could do both, setting the stage for the 1961 Freedom Rides.
The Freedom Rides were begun in 1961 as a response to a 1960 ruling, Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 206, 81 S. Ct. 182, 5 L. Ed. 2d 206, in which the Supreme Court decided that interstate buses and trains, and the facilities in the terminals that served them, could not constitutionally remain segregated. The ruling was flagrantly ignored throughout the South. The Freedom Riders, who were both black and white, intended to stop the segregation by traveling together along the routes where segregated facilities were located. The Freedom Rides drew the attention of the Congress, which began debate on a civil rights bill in the summer of 1963. The 1964 CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, as the bill was called, was finally passed on July 2, 1964, guaranteeing African Americans EQUAL PROTECTION in the use of hotels, restaurants, and other public establishments; in job opportunities, raises, and promotions; and in the use of public schools (Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241).
While the Freedom Riders traveled across the South, SNCC also pursued voter registration. In 1963, Baker went to Mississippi to help with the Freedom Vote, a project of CORE and SNCC. The Freedom Vote was a mock election intended to demonstrate that, contrary to the opinions held by many white southerners, blacks were interested in voting. Baker assisted the project by speaking at rallies, setting up polling places, and collecting and counting the ballots on voting day. The Freedom Vote was a big success: more than 80,000 of the 90,000 people who cast ballots that day were black, even though only around 20,000 blacks were registered for real elections. Two years later, in August 1965, the efforts of Baker and thousands of other activists bore fruit when the VOTING RIGHTS ACT (Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437) was passed. The Voting Rights Act nearly eliminated one of the last ways that had been used to prevent African Americans from voting—the literacy test—by prohibiting its use in states where fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters were registered.
In 1964 Baker again helped organize a civil rights group. The group was the Mississippi Freedom DEMOCRATIC PARTY (MFDP), begun in response to an established political party, the Mississippi Democratic party. The MFDP attempted to represent the state of Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by claiming that, as an interracial group, it was better able to do so than the all-white Mississippi Democratic party. HUBERT H. HUMPHREY, vice president of the United States, and Walter F. Mondale, Minnesota attorney general, suggested a compromise: two MFDP members could be named as
delegates to the convention, but would not be part of Mississippi's delegation. The MFDP refused this offer, but its request was the catalyst for a new rule passed by the national Democratic party, that all state delegations would have to be racially mixed.
After achieving notable successes in the U.S. civil rights movement, Baker continued to serve as SNCC's mentor as the organization became involved in protests against the VIETNAM WAR, and as an advocate for the free speech movement and WOMEN'S RIGHTS. She also worked toward increased civil rights for blacks in other countries, including the former Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; South Africa; and Puerto Rico.
Baker died in New York City on December 13, 1986, her eighty-third birthday. By that time, some of the organizations she had been involved with no longer existed. SNCC fell apart after dissension developed over black power, or black independence from white America. The MFDP lasted through the 1967 elections, winning offices in local races, but was no longer needed after African Americans were allowed to join the state Democratic party. Baker's work, however, lives on in a generation of black U.S. leaders she nurtured and encouraged, who are able to carry on the struggle for civil and HUMAN RIGHTS worldwide.
Dallard, Shyrlee. 1990. Ella Baker: A Leader behind the Scenes. Parsippany, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press.