Ella Baker: The Mother of Grassroots Leadership
“Strong people do not need strong leaders.”
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903. She was raised on the same land that her grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth “Bet” Ross, was enslaved. She often told young Ella stories about slave revolts and subsequent injustices, which clearly made an impact on her trajectory.
Even as a student at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, she flexed her activism by standing up to policies she deemed unjust. After graduating as valedictorian, she moved to New York City and became the national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League.
In 1938, Baker started working as a field secretary with the NAACP until she became the director of branches in 1943. She resigned from her position in 1946 when her efforts to redirect the association to grassroots organizing were met with disapproval. She rejoined the NAACP in 1952 as the president of the New York City branch.
“In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.”
After the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Baker, Stanley Levison, and Bayard Rustin co-founded In Friendship, an organization that raised money to combat Jim Crow laws in the South.
In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While Baker greatly loved and respected MLK Jr., she favored a more independent approach in lieu of King’s follow-the-leader style.
She saw a certain danger in anyone becoming the face of a movement, not only because it puts a target on their back but because people may come to believe that one person is the movement. And that, she might say, is unnecessary to bring meaningful change.
“What is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others.”
Baker firmly believed in the individual will to tackle injustice and dedicated her life to bolstering others to fight for their freedoms. Over the years, she developed the nickname “Fundi,” a Swahili term that signifies someone who teaches some pursuit—in this case, autonomous activism—to the next generation.
After the Greensboro sit-ins in February of 1960, Baker left the SCLC with the intention to help young students organize and become an integral part of the freedom movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of Baker’s most prominent contributions.
In April of 1960, she invited hundreds of Black students who had taken part in the early-60s sit-ins to gather at Shaw University, her alma mater. She encouraged each one of them to be sovereign advocates and supporters rather than joining the SCLC or any other civil rights group.
“Give light and people will find the way.”
The SNCC became a force to reckon with. Many of the same students participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides in protest of segregated bus terminals throughout the South. The members went on to arrange Freedom Summer in 1964, which brought national attention to racism in Mississippi and helped register Black voters.
To help support the philosophy and efforts of Ella Baker, consider volunteering or donating to The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The nonprofit focuses on shifting funds away from the prison and policing systems toward housing, health, and community services for low-income people of color.