Our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is often rather simple, bringing to mind sit-ins, marches, and of course, Martin Luther King. In biopics and movies, it also seems that our sweet Brother Martin singlehandedly brought the American Negro into freedom, with the help of a few of his bros and the occasional supportive phone call from Coretta. This is the reflection of history that I think would have horrified many civil rights leaders, not because they aren't represented in it, but because it can often seem as if the Civil Rights Movement was one group led by one man speaking for all of Black America. Further study, however, reveals activists like Ella Baker, without whom our understanding of Civil Rights would be greatly revised.
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, but raised in Littleton, North Carolina. Her family two generations out of slavery and raised on the farm they'd been slaves on, Ella grew up with an understanding and focus on the injustice that her family still faced, which inspired her to attend and fight prejudice at Raleigh's Shaw University (where she would graduate as valedictorian, alright y'all!) Unable to afford a master’s degree after graduation, she got involved with activism in Harlem by joining the Young Negroes Cooperative League and NAACP. She later joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of its founder, MLK, where she basically mentored all of your faves and fought for you and your grandparents’ rights, just cause she could. And though she was immensely talented and well liked, she had issues with the egos and sexism of the leaders, who wanted her to serve as executive chair of the SCLC without the title (especially, your grandfather’s favorite, MLK), and she claimed they treated her like the help.
Baker saw that there were clear issues with the leadership formats of these organizations, which relied on individuals to advance the message of civil rights instead of supporting widespread and grassroots activism. After meeting with the youth activists that led the Greensboro Sit Ins, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the primary group behind the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer. This youth led group focused on empowering communities with voting rights, awareness of issues, and economic justice. She also created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which lacked the segregationist views of the Mississippi Democratic Party, and helped participate in activism of many forms until her death in 1986.
In a post Jim Crow, post Zimmerman trial, post Ferguson, post Charleston America, it is easy to feel fatigued and helpless in the aftermath of the grave injustices and tragedies that seem to occur with no regard for humanity. Some days, I don't turn on the television or even scroll through my timeline, for fear that there's yet another tragedy, that I will have to hurt for another mother, another child, or another spouse who lost family to America's ignorance and violence.
This cycle of tragedy is practically as old as this nation, and yet it can sometimes feel as if we are facing it for the first time, and this hopelessness can make us feel alone. But I don't think there's an argument racists are making today that Ella Baker didn't already have a succinct and intelligent answer for. In her foresight, she acknowledged the difference in media portrayals of black riots versus white protests, police brutality, the national blaming of the South for all issues of racism, the importance of considering intersectionality in the advancement of both women and black people, and much more.
More importantly, Ella encouraged young people to answer their own questions—to follow grassroots leadership, but to also not let any one voice speak over them. To meet the needs of their communities while at home, and to be wary of charismatic leadership. This should be our inspiration for the post-Ferguson generation of activists. Ella Baker's focus on empowering young people is one of the things that encouraged me to put my energy into projects like 2 Black Grits, activism groups at my college, and community service at home.
I'd like to leave us with the piece of art that first introduced me to Ella Baker. There will, undoubtedly, be a full piece on the activist acapella folk group Sweet Honey in the Rock and their involvement in my childhood, so I won't go much into that. Instead, I'll focus on this performance of Ella's Song, which was created out of excerpts from Ella Baker's most famous speech, and centers around a rallying cry that always encourages me--"we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."
For More Information On Ella Baker, Read Here