“Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.” – Ella Baker
Ella J. Baker is one of the unsung heroines of the American Civil Rights Movement. Lesser than known than male counterparts like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baker worked for and/or helped found many of the many civil rights organizations we know of today during the her five-decades long career.
Baker grew up up in Virginia and North Carolina, listening to stories of slave revolts from her grandparents. After graduating from Shaw University as class valedictorian, she became active in social activism, first working for the Young Negroes Cooperative League before obtaining a position at the NAACP as a field secretary. In this role, she organized boycotts, raised money, registered voters, and traveled through the South, building a network of black churches and smaller activist organizations.
In 1957, she was part of the team of activists who helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and build on the momentum created by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though Baker was integral to the operations of the SCLC, she was never given the title of permanent director, largely because the organization preferred to have male ministers in that role. Baker did serve as interim director from 1958 to 1960.
In 1960, Baker witnessed the courage of four North Carolina A&T students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and felt compelled to focus her activism on working with young people. She left the SCLC and, with the students, helped found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Under her guidance, SNCC focused on promoting civil rights through nonviolent direct action and voter registration. Her guidance to the young people of SNCC had such a profound impact that she was nicknamed “Fundi” – a Swahili word that, loosely translated, means “mentor to new generations.”
In later years, Baker lent her voice and experience to broader progressive causes including the Puerto Rican independence movement, the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa, and women’s poverty in developing countries. She died in 1986.