Ella Baker: Remembering a Great American
As we mark both the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and the inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama, it’s impossible to not appreciate the through-line of history between the two men. King’s legacy and Obama’s inauguration represent not the fulfillment but the promise of democratic participation in the shaping and destiny of the United States of America — the notion that our government acts according to the will of the people and in their interest.
But while King may have been the titular head of the civil rights movement and the one who delivered its mandate to the halls of Congress in the 1960s — overseeing a tide of legislation that ratified black Americans full citizenship — I find it fitting in this time to reflect on a secret hero of the movement. Ella Baker struggled at the ground level, helped an oppressed people articulate their yearnings and strategized a revolution that shook the foundations of the South’s two-tiered society in which blacks remained at the bottom as whites enjoyed the benefits. In that spirit, I spent some time at the Greensboro Public Library’s downtown branch over the weekend with Barbara Ransby’s excellent 2003 biography, Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Ransby’s account suggests that the four NC A&T University students’ act of resistance to desegregate the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s drug store on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro in February 1960 was the seminal moment that placed the Civil Rights Movement in the hands of ordinary people instead of a small circle of charismatic preachers and cautious lawyers. When Ella Baker heard about the sit-ins in early 1960, they had not yet made national headlines, Ransby reports, but a friend in the movement, Fred Shuttlesworth, called the organizer with the news that the sitins had spread to High Point, where he had just been visiting. Baker and other movement strategists were ecstatic. “The students’ direct assaults on Jim Crow had done more to demolish the most ubiquitous and offensive everyday forms of segregation than years of carefully orchestrated national campaigns,” Ransby writes. “While exemplary local movements such as the Montgomery bus boycott seemed difficult to replicate in other locations, the sit-in tactic had spread with startling rapidity. Above all, the young activists themselves seemed transfigured by their success, and their challenge to segregation was reshaping national politics.” In Greensboro’s civic lore, the sit-ins appear somewhat isolated and stripped of context within the national situation and the web of relationships that propelled the movement. What many Greensboro residents may not know is that, inspired by the wildfire of sit-ins sparked by the Woolworth action, Baker organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh on Easter weekend of 1960 that launched the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Activists with the organization, known by its acronym SNCC (pronounced “snick”) would go on to supply the “shock troops” for the Freedom Rides that challenged segregated interstate transportation accommodations and elicited vicious white retaliation. They would support mass protests in places like Albany, Ga., and register voters in Mississippi. SNCC activists whose leadership abilities were forged in those dangerous and heroic campaigns include Georgia Congressman John Lewis, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Chairman Julian Bond, and former Washington DC Mayor Marion Berry. “Raleigh was the launching pad for a new phase of the Black Freedom Movement,” Ransby writes. The Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro were the spark, but thoughtful, intentional and committed activists — Ella Baker being a prime example — fanned the embers to create a youth-led movement that transformed the nation and caught the notice of the world. In Baker’s view, Ransby writes, “the sit-in leaders were on the front lines. They had taken the initiative and endured the violence. Therefore, they should retain the prerogative to structure and direct whatever organization emerged from the conference.” That priority was duplicated in Baker’s mentorship of SNCC, in which she is said to have counseled the college students under her tutelage to put aside personal and organizational advancement, and instead draw insight and direction from the poorest and most oppressed members of black communities across the South in which they set their organizing sights. During the voter registration leaders, and then begin knocking on the doors of homes in the mostrundown section of town and in the most remote rural areas, proddingthe occupants to discuss their concerns, their analysis of theirsituation and their own notions of what kind of change they wanted.Baker urged the student leaders, many of whom traded skirts and suitsin for blue jeans and overalls and adopted the speech patterns ofordinary folks, to seek out “indigenous leaders.” It’s fitting to remember, as we inaugurate the United States of America’sfirst black president — a man of extraordinary intellect and eloquence— that wisdom and capacity, indeed, the ability to be a self-governingpeople and solve enormous problems, come from the least among us.drives in Mississippi, Ransby writes that SNCC activists would first pay respect to clergy and other self-appointed leaders, and then begin knocking on the doors of homes in the mostrundown section of town and in the most remote rural areas, proddingthe occupants to discuss their concerns, their analysis of theirsituation and their own notions of what kind of change they wanted.Baker urged the student leaders, many of whom traded skirts and suitsin for blue jeans and overalls and adopted the speech patterns ofordinary folks, to seek out “indigenous leaders.” It’s fitting to remember, as we inaugurate the United States of America’sfirst black president — a man of extraordinary intellect and eloquence— that wisdom and capacity, indeed, the ability to be a self-governingpeople and solve enormous problems, come from the least among us.