• E-Books
  • Office of Scholarly Publishing
  • Latest Catalogs
  • Books for Courses
  • Exhibits Listing
  • View Cart

Quick Browse

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby. Introduction.

Approx. 544 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 14 illus., notes, bibl., index

$24.95 paper

Published: Spring 2005

Dot  Add Paper
Dot View cart
Dot Checkout

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
A Radical Democratic Vision

by Barbara Ransby

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

From The Book


In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. —Ella Baker, 1969
Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to "change that system." Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single "end" but rather an ongoing "means," that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle. If larger and larger numbers of communities were engaged in such a process, she reasoned, day in and day out, year after year, the revolution would be well under way. Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people, ordinary people, infusing new meanings into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history. These were the radical terms that Ella Baker thought in and the radical ideas she fought for with her mind and her body. Just as the "end" for her was not a scripted utopia but another phase of struggle, the means of getting there was not scripted either. Baker's theory of social change and political organizing was inscribed in her practice. Her ideas were written in her work: a coherent body of lived text spanning nearly sixty years.

Biography is a profoundly personal genre of historical scholarship, and the humbling but empowering process of finding our own meanings in another person's life poses unique challenges. As biographers, we ask questions about lives that the subjects themselves may never have asked outright and certainly did not consciously answer. Answers are always elusive. We search for them by carefully reading and interpreting the fragmented messages left behind. Feminist biographers and scholar-activists like myself face particular challenges. It is imperative that we be ever cautious of the danger inherent in our work: imposing our contemporary dilemmas and expectations on a generation of women who spoke a different language, moved at a different rhythm, and juggled a different set of issues and dilemmas. The task of tailoring a life to fit a neat and cohesive narrative is a daunting one: an awkward and sometimes uncomfortable process of wading barefoot into the still and often murky waters of someone else's life, interrogating her choices, speculating about her motives, mapping her movements, and weighing her every word. No single descriptor ever seems adequate to capture the richly nuanced complexity of a life fully lived. Every term is inherently inadequate, each one loaded with someone else's meanings, someone else's baggage. How can a biographer frame a unique life, rendering it full-bodied, textured, even contradictory, yet still accessible for those who want to step inside and look around?

My journey into Ella Jo Baker's world has been a personal, political, and intellectual journey, often joyous and at times painful. It has taken me in and out of some twenty cities and to numerous libraries, archives, county courthouses, kitchen tables, front porches, and a few dusty attics. This long journey has been marked by periods of difficult separation followed by hopeful reunions. In the process I have revisited the faces, experiences, and southern roots of my own mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins: Mississippi sharecroppers, domestic and factory workers, honest, generous, hard-working, resilient black people. Most importantly, in the process I have developed an intense and unique relationship with my subject. I have chatted, argued, commiserated, and rejoiced with Ella Baker in an ongoing conversation between sisters, one living and one dead. In this book, I have tried to tell Ella Baker's story partly as she would have told it and partly the way I—a historian and an activist of a different time and place—felt it had to be told.

There are those who insist that biographical writing is compromised and tainted by an author's identification and closeness with her subject. This does not have to be the case. I do not apologize for my admiration for Ella Baker. She earned it. I admire her for the courageous and remarkable life she led and for the contributions she made without any promise of immediate reward. I admire her for the ways in which she redefined the meaning of radical and engaged intellectual work, of cross-class and interracial organizing, and of a democratic and humanistic way of being in the world, all the while trying to mold the world around her into something better.

I first came upon Ella Baker's story through my search for political role models, not research subjects. As an anti-apartheid and antiracist student activist at Columbia University and the University of Michigan in the 1980s and as a black feminist organizer thereafter, I was drawn to the example of Ella Baker as a woman who fought militantly but democratically for a better world and who fought simultaneously for her own right to play more than a circumscribed role in that world. As an insurgent intellectual with a passion for justice and democracy, Ella Baker held an affinity for the most oppressed sectors of our society. So, my first connection to Ella Baker was a political one. This connection has enhanced rather than lessened my desire to be thorough, rigorous, and balanced in my treatment of her life and ideas. For me, there is more at stake in exploring Ella Baker's story than an interesting intellectual exercise or even the worthy act of writing a corrective history that adds a previously muted, black, female voice to the chorus of people from the past. To understand her weaknesses as well as her strengths, her failures as well as her triumphs, her confusion as well as her clarity is to pay her the greatest honor I can imagine. To tell her life truths with all their depth and richness is to affirm her humanity and all that she was able to accomplish, because of and at times in spite of who she was. There are vital political and historical lessons to be gleaned by looking back in time through the lens of Ella Baker's life.

Ella Josephine Baker's activist career spanned from 1930 to 1980, touched thousands of lives, and contributed to over three dozen organizations. She was an internationalist, but her cultural and political home was the African American community. So it is within the Black Freedom Movement in the United States—the collective efforts of African Americans to attain full human rights, from the nadir of segregation at the turn of the twentieth century through the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and beyond—that I locate her story. For Baker, as for W. E. B. Du Bois, racism was the litmus test for American democracy and for international human rights. Both were convinced that racism had infected every major social problem of the twentieth century: colonialism and imperialism, war and fascism, the oppression of women, the politics of crime and punishment, and the exploitation of labor; both recognized that very little progress could be made without tackling the political cargo of race. Baker organized for democratic rights for over fifty years, from Harlem to Mississippi, in interracial coalitions and African American organizations, and (unlike Du Bois) she lived to see the day when ordinary black folks enjoyed some of the fruits of freedom. But she died knowing that the process of struggle and social transformation would continue.

Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced "snick"). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an "outsider within." She was close to the centers of power within the black community, but she was always a critical and conditional insider, a status informed by her gender, class loyalties, and political ideology. Baker criticized unchecked egos, objected to undemocratic structures, protested unilateral decision making, condemned elitism, and refused to nod in loyal deference to everything "the leader" had to say. These stances often put her on the outside of the inner circle.

While her most public political associations were with men, some of Ella Baker's most significant and sustaining relationships were with a group of women activists, some of them not very well-known, who were her friends and co-workers over many years. These women provided the sisterly support that allowed Baker to fight all of the battles she did, both inside and outside the Black Freedom Movement. Ella Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations. Her life intersected with such notable black women as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Dorothy Height, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Pauli Murray, Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer. She was dear friends with NAACP legends Ruby Hurley and Lucille Black. As Diane Nash and Eleanor Holmes Norton suggest, women like Ella Baker were laying the foundation for contemporary black feminists even before the term was invented. This earlier generation of women lived the politics others have since written about, challenging treatment that belittled the seriousness of their contributions, resisting models of organizing that placed men and men's work at the center, and carving out public identities as leaders, strategists, and public intellectuals—identities that were generally reserved for men.

A creative and independent thinker and doer, Baker operated in a political world that was, in many ways, not fully ready for her. She inserted herself into leadership situations where others thought she simply did not belong. Her unique presence pioneered the way for fuller participation by other women in political organizations, and it reshaped the positions within the movement that they would occupy. At each stage she nudged the movement in a leftward, inclusive, and democratic direction, learning and modifying her own position as she went.

For Ella Baker, anchoring her activism within the black freedom struggle was not simply a matter of identity but rather a part of a political analysis that recognized the historical significance of racism as the cornerstone of an unjust social and economic order in the United States extending back to slavery. A movement for black freedom, defined broadly, she thought, would inevitably be a movement against economic exploitation and the oppressive conditions faced by other groups within American society as well. At least it had that potential. African Americans and, in a complex variety of ways, other peoples of color were excluded from basic access to the political process, marginalized socially, and super-exploited economically for the better part of the twentieth century. If this contradiction could not be confronted, Baker felt, there was no hope for American society as a whole. More precisely, she felt that to push and challenge political and economic leaders on this question would expose some of the society's fundamental flaws and serve as an impetus for transformative social change on multiple fronts.

An aging and irascible Virginia Durr, the legendary white civil rights activist from Montgomery, once confronted me at a conference to remind me that "Ella Baker didn't just belong to black people." She was right. Baker's work, influence, and political family extended well beyond the confines of the African American community and the struggle against racism. She had strong ties to the more democratic tendencies within the white left. She worked closely with the multiracial labor and cooperative movements, while at the same time championing struggles against colonialism and imperialism around the world.

Ella Baker was concerned with the plight of African Americans, but she was also passionately committed to a broader humanitarian struggle for a better world. Over the course of her life, she was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism. Still, because of who she was—a daughter of the Jim Crow South and a granddaughter of slaves—and because of the political analysis she formulated early in her career, which was centered on antiracist politics, Baker's primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom.

Baker identified with and helped advance a political tradition that is radical, international, and democratic, with women at its center. She critiqued black separatism as a narrow, dead-end strategy, yet she did not hesitate to criticize the chauvinism and racism of white colleagues in multiracial coalitions all the while stressing the importance of black leadership. Her own political ideology and worldview was a result of the cross-fertilization of the vibrant black Baptist women's movement of the early twentieth century, the eclectic and international political culture of Depression-era Harlem, and the American tradition of democratic socialism—a variegated mix of northern and southern, religious and secular, American and global, left and liberal elements.

Ella Baker's life gives us a sense of the connections and continuities that link together a long tradition of African American resistance. Each intergenerational organization she joined, each story she told, each lesson she passed on was a part of the connective tissue that formed the body politic of the Black Freedom Movement in the United States from the 1930s into the 1980s. Following Baker's path back through the years, trying to look at national and world events from her vantage point, takes us to different sites of struggle, opens up different windows of conversation, and pushes us into different people's lives than if we were to have someone else as our guide.

Finally, Ella Baker was a skilled grassroots organizer and an "organic" intellectual—one who learned lessons from the street more than from the academy and who sought to understand the world in order to change it. Many other activists looked to her, especially during the last half of her life, for her strategic and analytical insights and guidance. Her radical, democratic, humanistic worldview, her confidence in the wisdom of the black poor, and her emphasis on the importance of group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Her ideas and example influenced not only SNCC in the 1960s but also the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and embryonic women's movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.[1] Baker was a role model and mentor for an entire generation of activists who came of age politically in the 1960s. Within progressive circles, even those who did not know her knew of her.

Ella Baker was a movement teacher who exemplified a radical pedagogy, similar to that of Latin American educator and political organizer Paulo Freire. She sought to empower those she taught and regarded learning as reciprocal. Baker's message was that oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, had the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see that world for what it was and to move to transform it. Her primary public constituency was the dispossessed. She viewed a democratic learning process and discourse as the cornerstone of a democratic movement.

Ella Baker's private life was as unconventional as her public one. For example, many of her political colleagues never knew that she had, at one time, been married. She deemphasized her married life, never took her husband's name, and traveled extensively over the course of her nearly twenty-year marriage. Throughout the marriage, her principal passion was politics; after her divorce, she was singularly devoted to her first love.

Some aspects of Ella Baker's private life remain a mystery, not because I have not snooped and pried with the voyeuristic appetite of a private detective, but because she was so consciously and thoroughly discreet about personal affairs and protective of her family and domestic life. One of my chief frustrations as a biographer has been the difficulty of attempting to follow the trail of a woman who, in many respects, tried not to leave one. There is no memoir or diary, nor are there boxes of intimate personal correspondence. What remains is, for the most part, her public voice and presence as documented in over thirty archival and manuscript collections of organizations and individuals across the country. Her own personal papers, which chronicle only part of the story, are now deposited at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. I have spent untold hours pouring over the documents there. I have interviewed dozens of people who knew her and tracked down letters, papers, and photographs in the most out-of-the-way places. Yet there is much we may never know.

A part of interpreting and revisiting Ella Baker's life has involved a series of oral history interviews with friends, family members, and co-workers who knew her over the years. These conversations gave me not only the facts about Baker's life but the feel of it as well. While these excavated memories helped me add movement and fluidity to otherwise still-life snapshots of Baker, I also appreciate the limits of our recollective powers. I have tried in every instance possible to find more than one source to substantiate particular individual assertions. In other instances I have qualified those assertions as speculative or remembered. I also realize that written documents can be misleading, so I do not mean to privilege them without condition. All of the sources are used as pieces of a larger puzzle, reinforced by other parts as they fit or don't fit what is already known. In addition to the recollections and observations of others, I have tried to tap Ella Baker's own words as much as possible. Even when speaking for herself, however, in the dozen or so interviews that have been preserved, Baker is more often than not speaking with the benefit and the blurred vision of hindsight, years and in some cases decades after the fact. As honest and straightforward a person as she was, and as lucid as she was until the early 1980s, I cannot always afford to take her at her word. Memories fade, ideas change, and thus what we thought we felt or did at the time is filtered through the lens of our ongoing sense of ourselves. In reconstructing her political views, however, I gave Ella Baker and myself greater license than when reconstructing a series of events largely because I am as concerned about where she ended up politically and philosophically as I am with how she got there. Her conclusions and self-representation are critical elements in summing up her life's work and her ideas.

Psychologists have written about the complex ways in which public individuals, especially women, demarcate the boundaries between public and private lives as a form of psychological protection. Ella Baker guarded her privacy. Her refusal to talk about certain aspects of her past, while being wholly open about others, resembles "the culture of dissemblance" that historian Darlene Clark Hine talks about. In analyzing the silence surrounding black women and rape, Hine writes: "By dissemblance I mean the behavior and attitudes of black women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors."[2] In the case of Ella Baker, the shielding was from public view and scrutiny, not only from her oppressors, but often from friends and colleagues as well. Shielding their private lives from public view provided a margin of protection for black women of Ella Baker's generation, who were vilified and stereotyped by whites and often circumscribed to a limited sphere of activity by black men. According to her friend Lenora Taitt-Magubane, Ella Baker never wanted to be "pigeon-holed." The less known about the complex person she was, perhaps the less likely she was to be sized up and assigned an identity with narrow borders. Bernice Johnson Reagon once observed that Baker was the first woman she met who would not allow a discussion of her marital status. This was liberating for Reagon and other young women because they then felt personal and romantic relationships could be left at the door when they went into a meeting, which better enabled them to participate on their own terms regardless of who they were or were not dating at the time. Hine concludes that "a secret, undisclosed persona allowed the individual black woman to function, to work effectively as a domestic in (sometimes hostile) white households."[3] I would add that it may have allowed Ella Baker and many of her female counterparts to function more effectively—although not without a psychological price—within predominately male civil rights leadership circles. Still, all was not shielded from public view. And from literally thousands of documents, articles, interviews, flyers, letters, and FBI reports emerges the story of Ella Baker's amazing and incandescent life.

This biography surveys Ella Baker's long and rich political career in an effort to explain the unique political and intellectual contributions she made to the movement for radical democratic change in America. Like most biographies, it begins by exploring the familial and educational experiences that were the foundation of her public political life. Baker's childhood and schooling through college are covered in chapters 1 and 2. Baker's well-read and deeply religious mother was her moral anchor in her early years, providing her with intellectual training and a sense of social responsibility that she would carry with her always. Her time in boarding school and college at Shaw Academy and University in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a period of intellectual and political growth. Baker had a stellar academic career and organized her first protest against what she perceived as an unjust exercise of authority by college administrators. Chapter 3 explores Ella Baker's eye-opening cultural and political encounters in Harlem in the late 1920s and 1930s, a time when she secularized her childhood values and embraced the radical democratic vision of social change that she would modify and build on for the next half century. In chapter 4 I survey Ella Baker's six-year tenure as a part of the national staff of the NAACP from 1940 to 1946, first as a field secretary and then as the national director of branches. During the intense period of World War II, Ella Baker traveled throughout the minefield of the American South, organizing local branches, encouraging local leaders to be more active, and building up a network of contacts that she would rely on for years to come. In her capacity as the NAACP's director of branches, Baker sought to democratize the organization by empowering local and regional leaders and by deemphasizing legal battles and giving more attention to grassroots struggles. Chapter 5 focuses on Baker's work concerning school reform and police brutality in New York City in the 1950s; these struggles occurred against the backdrop of mounting anticommunist and Cold War policies and rhetoric. Baker herself had a curious and ambivalent relationship to the communist question, one that evolved and changed over time.

The second half of the book deals with the period of the modern civil rights and black power movements, the apex of Baker's political sojourn. Chapters 6 and 7 chronicle Ella Baker's work with the SCLC in the mid- to late 1950s and specifically her concentrated work with the more active SCLC affiliates in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Birmingham, Alabama. Chapter 6 offers a perspective on Baker's complicated and conflicted relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. and the tensions between them, which revolved largely around their divergent views on leadership and organization. Chapters 8 and 9 detail Baker's pivotal role in the founding of SNCC and her capacity as mentor and adviser to the young activists of that group from 1960 to 1966. Chapters 10 and 11 focus on SNCC's work in Mississippi in the 1960s, her work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the rise of black power. Chapter 11 ends with a discussion of Ella Baker's political involvement in the 1970s and 1980s after the collapse of SNCC. During the final years of her life, Ella Baker spoke out passionately against political repression and in support of anticolonial struggles, most notably in connection with the Free Angela Davis campaign and the Puerto Rican Independista Movement. For several years she also lent her name and her dwindling energies to an effort to create an independent third political party to the left of the Democrats through the Mass Party Organizing Committee.

The book concludes, in chapter 12, by outlining Ella Baker's political philosophy as it relates to both historical and contemporary contexts, offering a living legacy to all of us who share her vision of a more just and democratic society, not as an event in history but as an ongoing process around which to organize our lives and work.

On Saturday, December 13, 1986, precisely eighty-three years to the day after her birth, Ella Jo Baker died quietly in her sleep in the modest Harlem apartment she had occupied off and on for nearly forty years. The end of her life did not come as a surprise to those close to her. She had been sick for some time, and her health had been spiraling downward rapidly in the months preceding her death. But as natural and uneventful as her passage may have seemed, it represented the end of a rich and influential political career, and even the end of an era. Those who gathered to mourn her death the following Friday symbolized in their diversity the breadth and depth of Ella Baker's influence on American politics for the better part of the twentieth century.

It was a cold and rainy day in New York City and a week before Christmas when the overflow crowd piled into Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church to remember and to celebrate a woman who had touched more lives than she herself could have realized. Those who came to honor Ella Baker wore fur coats, African prints, Islamic kufis, and yarmulkes. They were young with dreadlocks and elderly with graying temples and receding hairlines. They were black and white and a myriad of shades in between, men and women, rich and poor, those formally educated and those self taught. Among those who gathered were politicians, religious leaders, entertainers, and renowned scholars. Crowded in among the celebrities were those whom Ella Baker sometimes referred to as the little people: people without credentials or titles, but people she had valued and respected in her life, and who now honored her in death. They were neighbors, local merchants, and even those who didn't know Ella Baker personally but knew her enough by reputation that they came to pay their respects. This is what Ella Baker had done for decades. If a child was born or if someone in her extended family passed away, she found time to acknowledge the importance of that singular life. Harlem activist Yori Kochiyama, an internment camp survivor who was on the speaker's platform with Malcolm X when he was assassinated, remembered fondly Ella Baker's kindness toward her family when her son, Billy, died in 1975. Ella Baker did not know Billy Kochiyama, really. He had gone to Mississippi in 1965 as an act of solidarity with the growing Black Freedom Movement, and they crossed paths briefly. When he died tragically ten years later, Baker sent a telegram and made a phone call to Billy's parents to express her condolences. Yori Kochiyama, who had admired Baker from a distance, and met her only once, treasured the gesture. Yori Kochiyama in turn paid her respects that rainy December day in Harlem.[4]

Throughout much of her life Ella Baker was a radical humanist and a consummate coalition builder, connecting young and old, black and white, neophytes and veterans, and staunch leftists and ambivalent moderates. Gathered together in the Abyssinian church that day was the eclectic and sometimes fractious group of people Baker had claimed as her political family. Crowded shoulder to shoulder, they found their political differences receding in their shared admiration for a fallen comrade, sister, teacher, and mother. Ardent nationalists, orthodox Marxists, establishment politicians, and free-floating radicals—people with long-standing antagonisms, some of whom hadn't spoken to each other in years—mingled in a slow common procession. Only Ella Baker could convene such a gathering. There were touching moments that suggested her political children had actually internalized her belief that in the end the politics are only as important as the real human beings whom we struggle with and for. Standing at Baker's graveside in the frigid December air, white activist Bob Zellner found himself positioned between his two old friends, Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael): two men who had come to symbolize "Black Power" and had been associated with militant black nationalist rhetoric. There they stood, the three of them together. Al-Amin draped his coat around the ill-clad Zellner, and Ture quietly shared his umbrella. No words were exchanged.

The voice that echoed most powerfully through the cavernous church where Ella Baker's funeral was held was that of Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of Ella Baker's political daughters and founder of the black women's a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Her commanding voice drew attention to every line of Ella Baker's favorite movement song, "Guide My Feet." "Guide my feet, while I run this race, … because I don't want to run this race alone … because I don't want to run this race in vain." And Ella Baker did neither. She ran long, she ran hard, and she ran with a diverse assortment of folks over some sixty years. Ella Baker did not represent any single tendency of the American left or a particular wing of the Black Freedom Movement; rather, she forged a hybrid political vision and an inclusive style of democratic leadership. The long-term goal, for which she admittedly had no blueprint, was simply a more democratic, egalitarian, and humane world. Baker's values and her deeply felt ideals guided her feet over variegated and difficult terrain. In the race, she was not a sprinter but a long distance runner.[5]

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement | Home

© 2016 The University of North Carolina Press
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
How to Order | Make a Gift | Privacy