In 1981 the womens a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded “Ella’s Song,” written by the group’s founder civil rights activist Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan. The opejning lyrics begin with “We who believe in freedom cannot rest” taken from a speech Ella Baker gave in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964 — Freedom Summer–when volunteers went door to door through the state of Mississippi talking about voting rights and documenting voter intimidation. Two days before her speech the bodies of three missing civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found. They had been murdered and buried in a dam.
Small in stature but towering in courage, Ella Baker organized. A graduate of Shaw University in North Carolina, Baker decided not to pursue the quiet middle-class privileges her education and talents may have afford her. Instead she sought to empower the oppressed and ordinary people in their own communities giving them the tools to mobilize. Soon they would recognize their own leadership abilities to make change and fight injustice. She did not back away from the word “radical.”
In the 1940s Baker worked as a field secretary for the NAACP traveling to the local branches in the South to set up membership and fundraising drives. Baker sought out the youth groups within these NAACP branches and made herself accessable to them and engaged their energy. She believed the people she met on her travels had the talent and ability to transform their lives without having to wait for a leader to show up. he was so successful as a field secretary that the NAACP promoted her to director of branches from 1943-1946.
Inspired by the leadership with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Baker moved to Atlanta, GA to help the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
When a group of Black college students refused to move from a Woolworth’s lunch counter, Ella Baker saw an opportunity to create a new kind of leadership to take the civil rights movement in a new direction. She brought the sit-in protestors together at her alma mater, Shaw. Her goal was to help the students build on their victories and create a network that would sustain their momentum. This gathering eventually led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. Baker was the elder in the room but created the space for students to discover their own leadership potential under her guidance. If asked who the leader of this student group was, often the reply was “We all are.”
If there is any philosophy, it’s that those who have walked a certain path should know some things, should remember some things that they can pass on, that others can use to walk the path a little better.
Ella Baker, 1980
The painting of Ella Baker is by the same artist included in my Van Jones post: Robert Shetterly. The portrait is in his book/website Americans Who Tell the Truth.